Cody Shoemaker doesn't believe in coincidences.
A deeply religious man, he firmly believes that everything that happens in life is part of God's plan. It would almost have to be, or else Shoemaker is living a life full of unbelievable coincidences.
Shoemaker's plan includes a series of events that have led him from Dover to Missouri and soon to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
No, Shoemaker won't be competing, but he'll play an integral role in helping one of his closest friends, J'Den Cox, and Cox's family, enjoy the Olympics experience come August. Right now, Shoemaker is serving as Cox's de facto manager. Once the Games begin, however, Shoemaker will take care of Cox's family, helping them around the nation he once lived in for two years.
Shoemaker has spent much of his life engulfed in the world of wrestling, but since graduating from Dover High School in 2007, he's taken on a new challenge within the sport, doing behind-the-scenes work for two NCAA Division I programs.
That's landed him a trip to the Olympics. While he won't be seen on television by the millions of viewers watching around the world, he's still feeling the excitement of the moment. It's a moment a guy from small-town Dover never thought was imaginable, even as little as a year ago.
"It’s extremely exciting," Shoemaker said. "God makes things happen for a reason and he puts you on certain podiums and when you’re on those podiums, you have to do what’s right because other people are watching.”
A life dedicated to wrestling: Shoemaker's life in wrestling dates back to when he was a youngster growing up in Dover.
He wrestled in the youth program, in middle school and on the varsity team in high school. While he loved the sport, he was also a realist. He understood that life on the mat wasn't going to extend past his senior year of high school. Yet, he still wanted to be around it.
So, when he graduated high school and left for East Lansing, Michigan, to attend a satellite campus of Northwood University, he sought out any opportunity he could find that would keep him involved in the sport. Unfortunately, Northwood didn't have a wrestling program, but Michigan State did, which was located just 10 miles from the Northwood campus. So, he contacted the coach at the time, Tom Minkel, about helping out with the team and began his duties as a team manager, responsible for disinfecting and mopping the mats and doing laundry.
Gradually, Shoemaker worked his way up and expanded his role with the team. By his second year, he was promoted to videographer, responsible for filming the team's home matches so the wrestlers could critique themselves. By his third year, he finally gained enough trust that he started traveling with the team, where he was still the videographer, but was also tasked with organizing and planning the road trips.
"I was pretty much a volunteer of what I'm getting paid to do full-time now," he said.
While Shoemaker was helping with the Michigan State program, he was also making contacts with personnel at other programs.
"Everywhere I got to travel, I introduced myself to opposing coaches because, that way, I'd see them multiple times a year, they got to know who I was," Shoemaker said. "I believe that if you do your time and pay your dues, good things will happen."
Developing a brotherhood: Shoemaker was right. Once he graduated from Northwood University and enrolled in Michigan State's online master's program, Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith contacted Shoemaker about coming aboard as the director of operations for the Tigers' wrestling program.
That led Shoemaker to Cox.
The bus that the Missouri wrestling team traveled on for road trips consisted of a living room area in the front, 12 sets of bunk beds in the middle and then another living room in the back. During the first road trip of the season, Shoemaker made his way to the back living room, along with Cox. Shoemaker and Cox eventually developed a relationship that Shoemaker can only describe as being like "brothers."
They talk on the phone daily and Cox has become extremely close with Shoemaker's wife, Eliana, and their two kids. Meanwhile, Shoemaker has become like a fifth child in the Cox family, which is from Columbia, the same town as the university.
Shoemaker was one of Cox's biggest supporters this past year, when he became the nation's 197-pound NCAA D-I champion as a junior, repeating the feat he accomplished during his freshman year. By winning the national title, Cox qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, which he originally didn't want to compete in. He entered the competition as a relative novice in Olympic freestyle wrestling.
Yet, Cox, who entered the competition seeded ninth, rolled through his opponents, knocking off a former Olympian, a four-time national champion and a two-time national champion to earn the top 86 kilogram (189 pounds) spot on the U.S. team. However, because the U.S. team didn't finish high enough at the 2015 World Championships or PanAm Games to automatically qualify its 86 kilogram wrestler, Cox had to go to Mongolia to qualify through the Olympics World Qualifying Games. There, he went 5-0, outscored his opponents 36-3 and booked his ticket to Rio. Those eight bouts that Cox won to make the Olympic team were his first ever in freestyle wrestling, a variation of the folkstyle format he's used to in college.
In folkstyle, not only do you wrestle three periods, but following a takedown, wrestlers will continue action on the ground. However, in freestyle, there are two, three-minute periods and much of the action takes place standing. Should a wrestler score a takedown, unless he continues action on the mat, the referee will stop the bout and stand up the wrestlers and then restart the bout. It's through his quickness that Cox has been so successful in his short stint as a freestyle wrestler, going 9-1 in his first 10 bouts.
"His niche is that he’s very fast for his weight and he’s extremely good at taking people down," Shoemaker said about Cox. "That’s why he’s excelled at a very quick pace in the very short amount of time that he has.”
Shoemaker isn't going to Rio just because he's one of Cox's best friends. He's not even going because of his association to Missouri wrestling.
He's making the trip because of another time in his life that he can only point to as an act of fate that set him up as the only director of operations in Division I wrestling to be fluent in Portuguese.
Time in Brazil: Shoemaker remembers getting the letter in the mail saying that he was going to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for his mission trip, and instantly pictured the Amazon rain forest, monkeys and snakes.
When he arrived, his roommate didn't know a word of English. Shoemaker didn't know any Portuguese.
Following his freshman year at Northwood, Shoemaker took two years off from school, from July 2008 through July 2010, to serve a mission trip with the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. He didn't choose Brazil, but rather, the church chose Brazil for him.
While there, not only did Shoemaker eventually become fluent in Portuguese, but it's where he also met his wife. It's also why he's about to head back to Brazil, this time, for the Olympics.
As fate would have it: Shoemaker looks back on the last year of his life in disbelief.
It took a perfect storm of events for him to have the upcoming opportunity. But, it may go even further back, to when he first made contact with Minkle about working for Michigan State's wrestling program.
That got him in the door, working behind the scenes of a D-I program. Then there was the two-year mission trip to Brazil that forced him to learn Portuguese and where he met his wife. When he returned, as he continued his way up the ranks with the Spartans, his constant networking landed him a job at Missouri, where he just happened to become much more than best friends with one of just two current D-I wrestlers in the nation going to the Olympics, which, amazingly enough, are being held in South America for the first time, and in Brazil no less — where knowing the language and the culture are essential. Finally, there he was, as the only director of operations in D-I wrestling to know the culture and the language.
It just all seemed so coincidental.
Unless you don't believe in coincidences.
Then, it seems like fate.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," Shoemaker said. "I think it’s kind of crazy because, last year, the things that had to fall into place for this to happen — and J’Den and I talk about this quite a bit — but, we both very much believe God put us together for a reason."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org