COLUMBIA — Just 24 hours removed from qualifying for the 2008 Olympic Games, former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren waited outside of the Dan Devine Pavilion on Monday. He was there to tell his story to 600 camp-goers at the Tiger Style Wrestling Camp.
Askren, known for his boisterous demeanor on and off the mat, initially was hesitant to sing his own praises in front of the group of young wrestlers. Then he reconsidered.
“I started thinking, ‘Wait, this is a lifelong dream. I’m an Olympian,’” Askren said. “It hit me because this is two times a day working out and grinding injuries and everything and it hit me then. This is a lifelong dream.”
Following the introduction from his college coach Brian Smith, Askren walked into the facility amid a standing ovation from former coaches, teammates and aspiring wrestlers.
“A great thing happened for this program 24 hours ago and a great thing happened for a person who worked hard and believed in himself and has done it,” Smith said. “And now the first group he is going to talk to is you.”
Askren said his goal has always been to make the Olympic team after his collegiate career ended. But despite winning two NCAA titles and going undefeated his last two years of college, the big transition from college style to freestyle led many aficionados to think he would make the team in 2012 rather than 2008.
However, Askren, with a confidence in himself that, as he believes, rubs more than a few of his opponents the wrong way, felt he could do it sooner rather than later.
“You can’t plan six years ahead because that would be like giving up on this year’s games and I wasn’t ready to give up,” Askren said. “I knew I had enough time to focus and adapt and become good enough.”
So he adapted. He toned down some of his freewheeling style in order to compete with the best. He humbled himself to re-learn certain aspects of wrestling but never lost belief in himself, eventually rising to the No. 1 spot in America at 163 pounds.
He felt so good about his chances to get to the Olympics that he ordered a 40-person suite in Las Vegas, the site of the Olympic trials, to celebrate qualifying for the games — a week before the actual trials started.
“I was kind of calling my shot but I didn’t actually tell anyone till the day before,” Askren joked.
Askren also had T-shirts made with a silhouette of his distinctive curly hair and jutting chin depicted in the foreground of the Chinese flag. The shirts read “Putting the ‘chin’ in China” and were distributed to family and friends before his matches at the trials.
“That’s Ben,” Smith said. “He’s so confident that it didn’t shock me.”
Nor will it shock Smith if Askren walks out of Beijing in late August with another piece of hardware to add to his other trophy case. With some of the world’s best standing in his way, Askren expects to be an underdog.
That’s fine by him.
“I’m going to prove myself and I accept that,” he said. “I’m going to take care of business.”