COLUMBIA — A group of freshmen wrestlers stood around whispering in Missouri’s practice facility.
With less than two weeks until the Big 12 Conference Championships, the coaches’ attention was on the 10 starters, and the freshmen were not sure if they had to attend an early morning practice. Afraid to confront coach Brian Smith, they turned to a senior for help.
They could have asked senior captains Tyler McCormick or Josh Wagner, but they turned elsewhere. They looked to senior walk-on Vince Demarest.
Demarest approached Smith with the question without any fear, but Smith could not understand why he would ask such a thing. Demarest always came to practice, never complaining. He scolded Demarest for asking, who shrugged it off and continued with practice.
Only later did Smith learn that Demarest was not asking for himself, but for the freshmen.
One of five seniors on the team, Demarest is also the only senior to have never started a meet. For many, this would be a good enough reasonto quit. But Demarest is not like other athletes at Missouri.
Demarest, a native of Lansing, Kan., did not begin his collegiate athletic career at Missouri. It began at the University of Wyoming as a hockey player.
“Wrestling was just that thing I did in wintertime,” he said.
When it was time to decide what college to attend, he wanted to continue his hockey career. He packed his belongings and moved 11 hours north to Wyoming, where they had three inches of snow in September and a snowstorm in May.
“It’s Wyoming, but it feels like you’re in Tibet,” he said. “You’re so far away.”
At the end of his freshman year, Wyoming eliminated its hockey program, leaving Demarest in a tough situation.
He liked Wyoming and had made friends there, but it was also far from his family. There was also the cold weather.
“I just didn’t feel like I wanted to be there anymore,” Demarest said. “It was a sign that I needed to go closer to home.”
Not only was MU just hours from his parents, it also had a strong ROTC program, which he joined in Wyoming at the end of his freshman year.
Wrestling, however, was not in his plans then.
That changed after he moved to Columbia and befriended a few wrestlers who lived near him. When they heard that Demarest finished third at the Kansas state high school Championships his senior year, they urged him to join the team for open mat practices.
Demarest does not remember Smith ever approaching him with an offer to join the team.
“He pretty much never told me to go away, so I took that as an OK,” Demarest said.
Still, Demarest knew that his chances of starting a meet were slim. Ben Askren was already established as the starter at 174-pounds, which was Demarest’s weight class.
“He’s almost like a player-coach that doesn’t get to play much because of his weight classes,” Smith said.
At times, the thought of quitting entered Demarest’s mind.
“Maybe a couple times during practice,” he said.
Four hours a day were devoted to wrestling, plus his duties as a student and a member of the ROTC. Also, those four hours of wrestling each day were intense.
“I truly believe this is the toughest sport in college, and for a kid to make it their whole career isn’t easy,” Smith said.
A freshman class of 10 to 12 at Missouri usually dwindles to just a few. The team had two seniors in 2007 and five in 2008.
“There is nowhere to hide,” Smith said about practices. “You’re going to get your ass kicked if you’re not as good as a starter.”
But for Demarest, it was never about starting. Of course he wanted to compete, but he had bigger reasons to continue with wrestling.
When he graduates in May, Demarest will carry the rank of second lieutenant.
“I want to end up doing Delta Forces or Army Special Forces, and it requires so much discipline and mental toughness,” Demarest said. “I had heard that Missouri wrestling was tough. I came out knowing that I would get tougher physically and mentally.”
Juggling wrestling and ROTC has been a chore. Often the two would overlap, with a morning wrestling practice interfering with morning physical training for ROTC. Demarest has been fortunate that leaders in both programs have been lenient.
Colonel Wallace, Demarest’s officer in ROTC, let him skip physical training for wrestling practices.
“On the other side, coach Smith has been really supportive of the military and my situation,” Demarest said. “So they have both given me slack and allowed it to work.”
Smith says he enjoys Demarest’s positive, disciplined nature.
“He doesn’t do anything wrong, he just does everything right,” Smith said. “It’s been fun to have him around these past few years.”
McCormick said the same thing about Demarest, describing him as “an upbeat spirit.”
Each season, Demarest and McCormick compete fiercely in long distance runs that cover seven miles. They routinely finish first and second.
During their junior season, McCormick caught Demarest from behind on Providence Road with half a mile to go, eventually winning. This year it was Demarest finishing first.
“Whenever I’m out there and he’s behind me, I know that if I’m not going as hard as I can, he’ll catch me,” McCormick said. “If he wasn’t there, maybe I wouldn’t push it as hard.”