COLUMBIA — At this stage in Missouri wrestler Michael Chandler’s career, you can’t help but pull for him.
As a senior at Northwest High School in High Ridge in 2004, Chandler lost 4-2 in the Class 3 152-pound state championship.
It was a match he said he never should have lost.
Chandler had his sights set on wrestling for MU, but after failing to win a high school state title, Chandler worried the program would no longer want him.
But this never stopped him from working, and MU wrestling coach Brian Smith saw something worthy in him.
“He came here basically as a walk-on, and he has made me notice him every day,” Smith said.
Instead of using the high school disappointment as an excuse to quit, Chandler used it as motivation to get better.
“I really believe hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Chandler said. “All the talent in the world can come in and win a bunch of state titles and all that kind of stuff. But if they don’t want to work hard and put the time in, they’re not going to be great.”
Chandler, a redshirt his first season, finished 20-14 at 157 pounds and looked like a wrestler who might never experience the success he desired.
“I’m not the type of guy who wants to just be mediocre,” Chandler said. “I didn’t want to come in and just make the team. I wanted to come in and win a national title or numerous national titles. And I know it’s not going to happen unless every day I’m doing something to make myself better.”
And that’s what Chandler did. He put in the extra hours. He also hung around the right people, those who worked just as hard as he did. Chandler spent time with former MU standout Ben Askren, a two-time NCAA national champion. They worked outside practice about three or four times a week, Chandler learning what it takes to get to the next level. Former MU wrestler Tyron Woodley, a two-time All-American, also gave Chandler extra assistance.
Even during the offseason, Smith said he sees Chandler around almost every day.
“He doesn’t put the minimum in,” Smith said. “He’s maxing out that time that he can use to get better at wrestling.”
Chandler’s diligence has paid off.
As a redshirt freshman, he earned one of eight wild card bids for the NCAA Division I National Championships and finished one win away from being an All-American.
“He was that close ... where nobody in the world would have thought he was going to be except for the people within these walls here that said, ‘Man this kid’s working hard,’” Smith said.
As a sophomore, not only did Chandler’s confidence increase, but he also started to become a team leader. He earned an automatic bid to the NCAA championships, but failed to crack the top eight overall. But again, he spent his time during the offseason improving. With assistant coaches Lee Pritts and Shawn Charles, Chandler trained with the goal to win a national title, and this season, Smith named him a team captain.
“He basically bleeds black and gold with this program,” Smith said. “He wants this program to win a national title. He wants to win a national title. He does things right. He’s constantly up here, working out, bringing kids up here to work out, and that’s what your leaders are about.”
Chandler has not only accepted his role as a leader, but he also goes out of his way to help the new guys who might not have incredible credentials.
“I’ve kind of took it upon myself to take that approach toward guys who aren’t exactly the superstar recruits,” Chandler said. “I take them under my wing, hang out with them and make life a little bit easier.”
Although Chandler has wrestled so tenaciously, he had a setback at the Black and Gold intrasquad scrimmage. He lost by one point to 157-pound teammate, Emanuel Brooks.
“Obviously I was unhappy, pretty mad actually,” Chandler said. “But it wasn’t a big deal. It was a tiny, tiny step back, just for that night. The next day I was like, ‘You know what, forget about it.’ It’s good to have guys like that in the room who are nipping at your heels.”
Chandler responded in his typical way. On Nov. 10 at Hofstra University, Chandler won by major decision over Johnny Bonilla-Bowman. The Tigers won the meet 22-21, which made Chandler’s bonus points vital.
“It’s not just about me winning a national title,” Chandler said. “It’s about the team winning a national title. And I really do feel like this year, if I step off the mat without scoring bonus points, I haven’t fulfilled my purpose on the team.”
On Sunday, Chandler scored two major decisions on the way to winning one of six titles for the Tigers at the Missouri Open. Now at 5-0, Chandler is one of only three Tigers with prefect season records.
“It’s really kind of fulfilling to know where I came from and see where I am now, but not forget where I came from,” Chandler said. “I haven’t forgotten that I was once that guy who not many people thought was going to make it, let alone be a captain and hopefully win two national titles.”