COLUMBIA — Former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren is learning the Russian alphabet, not for a class or fun, but for his latest trip.
He is traveling with USA Wrestling to Vladikavkaz, Russia, to compete in the 2008 World Cup for freestyle wrestling on Feb. 16-17. The event features the top six nations in the world.
“This is a big step for me because it shows that the coaches have realized that I’m the best in the nation in my class,” Askren said.
He could not say the same thing back in November. At that time, TheMat.com, the official Web site of U.S. Wrestling, ranked Askren No. 8 among senior freestyle wrestlers at the 74 kg/163 pound division.
The fall of 2007 was a time of change for Askren. In college he competed at 174 pounds, so he had to cut weight in order to make his new division.
“He knew that for him to be successful, he would have to wrestle at 74 kg/163 pounds, so he made the decision to focus on changing to that weight and to freestyle,” said Kevin Jackson, the national freestyle coach for USA Wrestling.
He also adjusted to freestyle wrestling, which is different than the folkstyle wrestling practiced in college. Freestyle matches place less emphasis on control and consist of three two-minute periods. The first wrestler to win two periods wins the match.
Askren said that he did not wrestle as well as he had hoped in the fall but that he has performed better in the past few months.
“I mostly worked on my leg attacks and scoring multiple points on moves,” he said. “I also worked a lot on my defense.”
Now TheMat.com ranks him No. 1 in his weight class.
Askren’s recent success, which includes finishing first at the NYAC Holiday International Open in November, helped with his inclusion on USA’s World Cup team.
“He’s progressed nicely,” Jackson said. “The World Championships will be a great test for him and we can see if he is capable of competing at the Olympic level. If this weekend is a success, then we know that he is on the right track.”
Askren will face the best competition in the world in Russia. Makhach Murtazaliev of Russia, the 2007 World Champion, and Ibrahim Aldatov of Ukraine, the 2006 World Champion, are both competing. They are also TheMat.com’s top two wrestlers in the world at 74 kg/163 pounds.
While Askren was a two-time NCAA champion and a four-time All-American, his competition to make the Olympic team is just as accomplished. His weight class at the NYAC Holiday International Open featured at least four other NCAA All-Americans.
“There is a huge difference from a NCAA champion and a world champion,” Jackson said. “Ben still has a lot of ground to make up, but if he puts in the time, energy and effort to make up that ground, he will be in a hunt for the gold medal.”
Jackson has no doubts that Askren will put in the time necessary and said that he works as hard or harder than any other wrestler in the nation. As for what he needs to improve, Jackson wants him to continue working on his leg attacks and on preventing opponents from reaching his legs.
If Askren continues to improve on these areas, Jackson has a spot for him on the Olympic team.
“His chances are very good, because he has beat the majority of the guys in the United States and that’s what you have to do to make the team,” Jackson said.