COLUMBIA — There is a type of person who feels a need to test the limits of what conventional wisdom says the human body is capable. Back-country snowboarders, free climbers and base-jumpers crave the rush of being one step from death. It allows them to feel most alive.
Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith says he thinks his 184-pound wrestler, Mike Larson, is one of those people.
“I can’t picture myself in an office,” Larson said. “I need a job that will give me the rush that comes with extreme danger.”
Larson does not want to jump off cliffs to get that rush. He plans on going into the military to officer candidate school after he graduates from MU. He will then train to become a Navy SEAL.
Larson grew up in McKinleyville, Calif. It’s a town with just more than 15,000 people, located on the coast of Northern California. There is an air station for the Coast Guard near Larson’s home. He would always hear jets taking off and landing and for most of his life, he was planning to be a pilot in the Coast Guard.
A little less than a year ago, he received the book "SEAL Team Six." It’s a memoir about Howard Wasdin’s time as a sniper for the squad that killed Osama bin Laden. The book convinced him that he was meant to become a Navy SEAL.
“I know that kid can be pushed through barriers,” Smith said. “I can see him doing something that is an extreme in our society.”
Larson transferred from Cal State-Bakersfield two years ago, after the school shut down its wrestling program. He was challenged the first day of practice at Mizzou.
Larson hurt his jaw in a move to flip his practice opponent. It turned out to be broken. He was going to be out the rest of summer practices and would be eating through a straw for a couple months.
Larson began to lose weight and was frustrated he could not practice with the team he had just joined. But life was about to get even more difficult.
Two weeks after he broke his jaw, Larsen's best friend died in a car accident. He flew home to spend time with his family but was determined to get back to Columbia to get healthy and accomplish his goals.
“That was a really hard time for me,” Larson said. “But I came to Mizzou to be an All-American and a national champion, and that dream kept me focused."
Larson spent much of his first season bouncing between the backup and starting roster. It was hard for Larson to find his place in the program.
Smith remembers the point when he felt that Larson had been truly accepted by the team and became a leader.
“In the fall, I ask different wrestlers to come up and talk as we develop our goals for the season,” Smith said.
Smith asked Larson to speak. He spoke about how lucky they are to be wrestling for Missouri. He reminded his teammates to take advantage of the opportunity they have wrestling at such an elite program. At Bakersfield, Larson would have to buy his own training clothes, shared a gym with the other sports and was wrestling at a school that did not care about the program.
“They give us everything we need and more here. We even have fans,” he said with a laugh.
Larson says he has a certain rage when he gets on the wrestling mat. It's a rage that matches his Mohawk haircut and the devilish smile he has when his black and yellow mouthguard is in.
He has made a couple enemies with his wrestling style. Oklahoma wrestler Erich Schmidtke and Larson have gotten into it a few times. In a match earlier in the year, Larson was losing and felt Schmidtke was stalling as he wrapped around Larson’s leg.
“He was just hanging onto my foot, and I ended up kicking him in the head,” Larson said.
The blows were intentional, but Larson does not mean to throw cheap shots. When he is wrestling he gets in a zone. He wants to fight his opponent.
In high school, every one of his matches almost came to blows. His coaches had to calm him down. But for Larson, there is no downshifting. He is always in top gear.
He brings that intensity to the practice mat. During simple drills, it’s easy to see the anger grow in Larson’s face as his opponent brings him down. During warmups while everyone is taking their time to stretch, Larson is doing bear crawls at full speed, lapping the entire team multiple times.
His intensity has led to a lot of success in his second year as a Tiger. He won the Big 12 Conference championship at 184 pounds and will be competing in next weekend's NCAA championships.
“I am looking to do a little damage in St. Louis (where the tournament is held) and end up on the podium for the first time,” Larson said with that frightening smile.