LAS VEGAS — The U.S. Olympic wrestling team won’t lack for color in Beijing. There will be plenty of red, white, blue — and Ben.
Ben Askren, who brings a touch of pro-wrestling braggadocio to the don’t-rock-the-boat world of amateur wrestling, made a quick transition from NCAA champion to Olympian when he won the U.S. 163-pound freestyle trials Sunday night by beating national runner-up Tyrone Lewis in consecutive matches.
Also winning was repeat Olympian Daniel Cormier at 211½ pounds, and the former Oklahoma State standout immediately promised in Askren-like fashion he will do better than the fourth-place finish he managed at Athens in 2004.
Former college stars such as the 23-year-old Askren sometimes need indoctrination time before excelling in freestyle, which isn’t as wide open as U.S. college and high school wrestling. Askren has toned down his freewheeling style he calls the “flow” that he relied upon while winning two NCAA wrestler of the year awards at Missouri in 2006 and 2007.
But he hasn’t eliminated the raised No. 1 fingers, the pumping fists, the crowd gestures, all of which stamp him as a nonconformist in an old, traditional sport.
His wavy hair braided rather than flowing freely — he was tired of opponents pulling it — Askren accentuated every successful move or point scored with an animated reaction, just as he did during his early round matches Sunday.
“I just knew I was going to win. There was no doubt in my mind,” Askren said.
That confidence, he said, comes from a relentless training regimen and an eagerness to outwork his opponents.
“I work harder than a lot of people. A lot of senior level (wrestlers) don’t want to work. They don’t want to be the best,” Askren said. “I leave my mind open. I’m watching the Russians, the world champs. I’m picking everything up. I’m more prepared.”
Askren, who grew up in Hartland, Wis., lived up to his high school freshman year prediction that he would make the Olympic wrestling team, and now must carry out his prediction of winning a gold medal in China. That could be difficult, given the opposition could be two-time Olympic gold medalist Buvaisar Saitiev, an eight-time world-level gold medalist and one of the greatest wrestlers in history.
“I’m going to win a gold medal,” Askren said. “I may have Saitiev in the finals — next to John Smith, he’s my favorite wrestler of all time to watch — and him and me will put a lot of points on the board. And I think there’s a good chance the outcome turns in my end.”
Clearly, Askren does not lack in confidence or flamboyance, and he laughs when he says that wherever he wrestles, “More people are rooting for me than anyone else, and more people are rooting against me. I don’t care, as long as they cheer.”
Cormier needed only two best-of-three matches to defeat fifth-seeded Damion Hahn.
“I came up short in 2004 but I’m going to do everything to the best of my ability (in Beijing) and I’m coming home with nothing less than a gold medal,” Cormier said.