COLUMBIA — In June, Max Askren thought it was finished.
Suffering from persistent back problems, especially at the end of last season, the All-American wrestler was almost certain that he would not be able to wrestle his senior year. By mid-summer those fears were eased.
Nevertheless, adjustments because of lingering injuries and a new weight class have marked the start of this season.
The pain in his back emerged three weeks before the Big 12 Championships. After suffering a herniated disk in high school, he knew that the probability was high for the pain to resurface and trigger more serious problems. Still he went on to place fifth in the 197-pound weight class before getting a MRI that revealed one disc in his back was “pretty much gone” and another was bulging.
“Sitting in class all day was really difficult for me,” Askren said. “Wrestling didn’t help it. I came to grips with it around June or July that it wasn’t going to get better and that I was going to have to figure out something else that I was going to have to delve into.”
Despite his fears, Askren never shared his suspicions with head wrestling coach Brian Smith or the other wrestling coaches. He confided only in his older brother, former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren, and a few close friends.
“I didn’t talk to those guys about me not wrestling just because it wasn’t a for sure thing and there wasn’t a reason to put that burden on their minds,” Askren said.
In the meantime, Askren began to focus on his personal fitness, realizing if he couldn't wrestle, he’d have to find other alternatives in order to stay in shape. He began to cycle almost everyday and adjusted his diet. Without the protein shakes and ice cream that he'd been accustomed to eating to maintain his wrestling weight, Askren lost about ten pounds.
“I didn’t step on the mat for three or four months,” Askren said. “I got into biking and stuff because I like working out and hate feeling fat. You don’t feel good.”
Late in the summer his back was improving, and he realized he would be able to wrestle in his final collegiate season. But he weighed in at about 185 or 190. He had hovered around 200 pounds in the past. Luckily, teammate Brent Haynes, who wrestled in the 184-pound class last year, had put on weight and was willing to trade spots with Askren.
“It was just kind of logical for him, at 205 or 210, to go to 197 and for me to go 184,” he said. “But I talked to Brent before any decision was made, because he’s a big part of the decision, and if he wasn’t all right with it I would go back to 197.”
Now that Askren has moved to the lower weight class, Smith said that he is wrestling at the ideal weight.
“He’s a pretty disciplined kid, so I don’t see this as a huge challenge,” Smith said. “And I think that he’s going to be wrestling at the weight that he should be. There were some guys in the conference that when he’d wrestle them, he’d look a lot smaller.”
The work, however, is not over.
“The challenge is that this is the first time that he has to watch his weight, cut his weight, and keep control of it,” Smith said. “Literally, it’s the first time in his college career.”
Keeping the weight down, though, is just one of Askren’s worries this season. His back is still an issue, and he practices separately from the team so he does not get injured. Every day a different teammate will work out with him for 45 minutes or an hour before the team's official practice, and the coaches will give him instructions about what to work on in these individual sessions.
Additionally, Askren will sit out several matches this year to make sure he does not get prematurely injured. The reason is both Askren and Smith know that the senior’s chances at winning a championship are still very real.
“At the end of the year, that’s when it counts,” Smith said. “The regular season doesn’t really matter that much. We know Max, and we know that he can wrestle. We’ve just got to get him to March, get him healthy, and then he has a really good chance of winning the national title.”