COLUMBIA — He’s training hard so this dream becomes reality.
He tasted the sweet satisfaction of victory in college, but it can hardly compare with being on the highest podium in front of thousands of fans at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, with millions of people watching on TV, while the national anthem plays.
The ribbon with a gold medal attached is placed over the 163-pound wrestler’s curly hair. He trained two and sometimes three times a day to hear his name recited as “Ben Askren, Olympic gold-medalist.”
“My goal is to win an Olympic gold next year,” Askren said.
For the two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion and four-time All-American to accomplish this dream, Askren has to surpass quite a few obstacles in his way.
First, he has to cut weight to compete in the 74 kg/163 pound division, which is 11 pounds lighter than he wrestled at MU.
But losing the weight is not the hard part. It’s beating out the other 163-pounders who share the same dream.
As of Nov. 2, 2007, TheMat.com ranks Askren as the No. 8 freestyle wrestler in the country at 74 kg/163 pounds.
“We’re talking about guys that are all like him, two-time national champions; and then when you get overseas, you’re going against guys that have been sent to a training center in Russia since they were 4 years old to train,” MU wrestling coach Brian Smith said. “And that’s the level you want to train for and that’s what Ben’s doing right now.”
If being the best among a bunch of seasoned, ready and motivated 163-pound physical specimens isn’t challenging enough, Askren also has had to address the different style.
He’s focusing on adapting his style from the collegiate-style to the format he is training for now — freestyle wrestling,
To help with the transition, Askren is spending time with Plamen Paskalev, who represented Bulgaria and finished fourth in the men’s freestyle 74 kg/163 pound division at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“He’s really helped out a lot with refining Ben’s technique,” said Max Askren, Ben Askren’s brother.
Freestyle matches consist of three two-minute periods. The victor is decided by winning two of the three periods by fall, injury default or disqualification.
Freestyle wrestling also places less emphasis on control, and since the winner can be declared after the first two periods, matches are generally shorter than the seven-minute collegiate ones.
Also, scores are usually lower because stalling isn’t penalized.
Conditioning, therefore, becomes less important than gameplan.
“It’s very tactical,” Smith said. “But Ben has one of the most innovative minds about the game. He’ll come in every day and (ask) ‘Hey coach, how about this move? How about this one?’”
Smith said Askren has been concentrating specifically on improving his defense for the different format.
Askren is competing in tournaments as well to gain valuable freestyle experience.
He placed fourth at the Sunkist Kids International Open Oct. 26-28 in Chandler, Ariz.
It was Askren’s first event since beginning to train specifically for freestyle.
Tyrone Lewis, a four-time All-American and two-time NCAA runner-up for Oklahoma State, won the event.
Tyron Woodley, Askren’s good friend and former teammate, wrestles in the same weight class. He said he’d be surprised if Askren stopped wrestling after next year.
Although rehabbing from shoulder surgery will keep Woodley out of the sport until at least next month, he understands the difficulties of competing at the elite level of freestyle wrestling.
“I really can’t say for certain that Ben would make the Olympic team,” Woodley said. “In our weight class, it’s up in the air. The rules play a big part.”
Woodley used his victory over Joe Williams in the consolation preliminaries at the 2006 World Team Trials to illustrate his point. Williams is the No. 1 ranked 84 kg/185 pound U.S. wrestler.
Askren reinforced Woodley’s theory by winning at the Hargobind International Wrestling Championships in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada on November 3.
Askren lost to Travis Paulson at the Sunkist Open, but beat him in the finals in Canada.
Although qualifying for the Olympics will be challenging, Askren’s former coach has confidence in his work ethic and ability to improve.
Smith alluded to Askren’s progression from losing 10 matches his redshirt freshman season to making the finals every year and becoming a two-time Dan Hodge award winner the rest of his career.
“He knows he’s not at the level he needs to be at to win a gold yet,” Smith said. “But Ben makes improvements every day and that’s what is so special about Ben. He’s in the room working on new techniques and becoming a better wrestler.”
He also noted, while Askren is just starting to learn and tweak his freestyle skills, that some of his U.S. competition like Casey Cunningham and Donny Pritzlaff may be at the plateaus of their careers.
Cunningham won the 1999 Division I NCAA wrestling national championship at 157 pounds while wrestling for Central Michigan University.
Pritzlaff won back-to-back NCAA wrestling titles in 2000 and 2001 for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
TheMat.com ranks Cunningham and Pritzlaff No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in the country.
Smith compares Askren’s innovative mind and diligent work ethic with Cael Sanderson, who not only won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics, won the Dan Hodge trophy three times and was the only undefeated, four-time champion in NCAA history at Iowa State University.
For Askren to share success similar to Sanderson, he will first have to perform well enough to win at the U.S Olympic Team Trials from June 12-15, 2008, in Las Vegas.
“I expect to see him represent the U.S. in the next Olympics,” Smith said.