Former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren, top, is competing at the Olympic Trials on June 13-15 in Las Vegas.
By DAVID THIESSEN
It would be wise not to doubt Ben Askren.
He is competing at the Olympic Trials in Las Vegas on June 13-15, and he has faced his share of doubters along the way.
The former Missouri wrestler faced doubts that he could win in college because he was not fast or strong enough. Askren adopted his 'funky' style, utilizing his unique ability as a scrambler to win NCAA national championships in 2006 and 2007.
Even then, the doubters did not go away.
While Askren's style worked in college with folkstyle wrestling, which places more emphasis on scrambling, it did not fit as well on the international level with freestyle wrestling. In freestyle, wrestlers stay on their feet most of the time.
Once again, Askren quieted the doubters, climbing the United States Senior Freestyle rankings at 74 kilograms/163 pounds to the top. He also represented the United States at the World Championships in February.
Of course, the doubters returned before the ASICS U.S. National Championships, which were held on April 23-25. Askren was seeded third at 163 pounds.
Like he has in the past, Askren proved the doubters wrong. He won his first freestyle national championship in convincing fashion, not losing a single period during the tournament.
"A lot of young guys don't make it right away, so people were doubting me," Askren said. "I don't think they are doubting me anymore."
Askren has never been one to shy away from a challenge. His current goal is to make the Olympic team and then win a gold medal.
Askren, who began wrestling when he was 6, first set his eyes towards the Olympics when he was 15. He was at the 2000 Olympic Team Trials in Dallas and remembers watching Greco-Roman
wrestlers Garrett Lowney and Dennis Hall. Both Lowney, a bronze-medalist in 2000, and Hall, a silver-medalist in 1996, are from Askren's home state of Wisconsin.
"I was watching the best wrestlers in the country, and I just wanted to be a part of that," Askren said.
Askren then set a goal of making the Olympic Trials in 2004. He beat his goal by a year, making the World Team Trials in 2003 and then placed fifth in 2004 at the Olympic Trials.
"How much better I got every year was amazing," Askren said. "I went 0-2 at the national tournament as a freshman in high school, and that was against 15 and 16-year-olds, and then as a senior I won it. The jumps I made were outstanding. I never really said I can't be that good. There was never a ceiling."
Now Askren likes his chances to win the Olympic Trials.
"I am the favorite," he said, oozing confidence. "There is no two ways about it."
Recently, Northwestern University wrestler Jake Herbert joined Askren in Columbia for a week to train. The two have been friends since they competed against each other in 11th grade.
Herbert said he is not surprised by Askren's quick ascension to the top of the 163-pound division because Joe Williams, a six-time national champion, moved from 163-pounds to 185-pounds.
"Anybody could have stepped up and taken it, but Ben obviously wants it the most and has been working the hardest," Herbert said.
Askren has been training twice a day, working on his technique, lifting weights and running in the morning. Then in the afternoon he wrestles with Missouri wrestlers or friends who visit, like Herbert.
Over the past year, Askren has been focusing on adapting his technique. He entered the 2007 World Team Trials confident as always, but finished sixth.
"I thought I was so much better than every other wrestler, that no matter what happened, they would make a mistake and I would catch them in these mistakes," Askren said. "Really, I had some glaring weaknesses in what I was doing, so after the trials I had to fix them."
He scrapped his scrambling style and began wrestling more on his feet, keeping opponents away from his legs and preventing them from finishing attacks. Now, Askren said he has no glaring weaknesses.
"I'm going to be very tough to beat for two periods when they can't even beat me for one period," Askren said.
Like always, Askren is confident in his abilities, even though making the Olympic team is tougher than anything he faced in college. He is competing against former NCAA and national champions.
"Only seven guys make an Olympic team every four years," Herbert said. "That's ridiculous."
But Askren knows that he has beaten his main competition over the past year, and his recent national championship has proved to him that his hard work has corrected past flaws.
"I wish it could happen next weekend, I'm ready," Askren said. "I want to make the team and start focusing. I know that I'm good enough to beat these guys, and I'm ready to focus on the international guys."