Ben Askren’s curly golden locks lay on the floor.
The evolution of Ben Askren the wrestler was complete with his signature Afro freshly shorn.
During this year’s World Cup of Freestyle Wrestling, Russian Denis Tsargush snatched Askren’s hair and won the match.
“Bad memory,” Askren told the Austin American-Statesman in Beijing. “I’ve put too much work into this to lose because I’ve got long hair. I’ve got to get the gold.”
Askren, an MU graduate and two-time NCAA champion for the Tigers, made a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics his goal after qualifying for the games in June. He was unable to achieve it, though, losing his second-round match in Wednesday morning’s 74-kilogram competition in Beijing. After pinning Istvan Vereb from Hungary in his first match, Askren lost to Cuba’s Ivan Fundora, and because of Fundora’s loss in the quarterfinals, Askren did not qualify for wrestlebacks and a chance for bronze.
Like his hairstyle, it’s all new for Askren. He has gone from a funky collegiate wrestler to a conservative wrestler with some funky elements.
The transition from college superstar to Olympic wrestler wasn’t easy for Askren. Many doubted he would be in Beijing in 2008. The 2012 Olympics were more realistic for Askren, who finished sixth at the U.S. Nationals and fifth at the U.S. World Team Trials in 2007. The USA wrestling Web site still lists Askren as “unranked” for the 2007-2008 wrestling season.
“If I had quit or stopped working, I wouldn’t be in this position,” Askren said before heading to Beijing.
After struggling to reach international competition in 2007, Askren went back to the basics with Tigers assistant wrestling coach Shawn Charles, who has continued to work with Askren after he graduated. Charles forced Askren to abandon the funk that made him the best collegiate wrestler in the country.
“We made Ben give up a lot of the opportunities of funking and go back to the basics of defending his legs and not giving up opportunities for position,” Charles said. “In the Olympics, you can’t give up that kind of position against the best guys in the world, or they will take you down.”
In college wrestling, known as “folk style,” wrestlers spend a lot of time on the mat jockeying for position. That’s when Askren brought his funk to the mat and dominated opponents.
In the freestyle wrestling in which Askren is competing at the Olympics, wrestlers spend most of their time standing up trying to take down their opponent. Askren’s funk on the mat was deemed mostly useless. Reeling back the funk is where Askren first struggled in international competition. But once Askren went back to the basics, he found himself winning tournament after tournament and on a flight to Beijing.
“That’s the difference between Ben in 2007 and Ben in 2008,” Charles said.
Just days after winning the U.S. Olympic Trials, Askren found himself in the parking lot preparing to talk to 600 MU wrestling campers.
“At first I didn’t want to speak, because I don’t really like talking about myself in front of a bunch of kids,” Askren said. “Then I started to think, ‘Wait, this is a lifelong dream. I’m an Olympian.’ It just hit me and I started bawling in my car.”
Even though Askren found himself in the world spotlight, he wasn’t shaking in his singlet.
“I have no fear, it’s a wrestling match. There are no weapons,” Askren said before the competition. “The worst thing that could happen is I could be thrown over his head and that’s a big maybe. The only thing fear is going to do is make me perform poorly.
“Mental toughness is one of those things that sets me apart along with my confidence.”
Missouri head coach Brian Smith says that Askren’s attitude and mental toughness are what caused him to recruit Askren. Not only was Askren the best wrestler in the country his last two seasons with the Tigers, but Smith says he was the best intimidator, too.
“He’s a lot like Muhammad Ali,” Smith said. “He’d be making people scared during weigh-ins if they had to wrestle him ....”
When Askren steps on the mat, he changes personality.
“My on-the-mat personality is completely different than my regular, everyday hanging-out-around-the-house personality,” Askren said. “I’m a little bit crazy when I go out there. I’m thinking that I’m going to go out there and kill you. I’m going to destroy you. I’m going to beat you up, and there’s no way you’re going to keep up with me.”