COLUMBIA " If you've ever complained about the climb to your seat in row 70 of Memorial Stadium, don't tell the Missouri wrestling team.
The 40 men of the Tiger squad trudge to the stadium once a week during preseason, which began last Monday, for their Wednesday stadium run. For at least 10 minutes, the ring of tennis shoes against metal bleachers and the grunts of overexertion and encouragement echo through the stands, drowning out the football team's practice on the field below.
The weekly ritual is not the only element of the grueling preseason training that tests the team's strength and willpower; the eight hours a week of practice that the NCAA permits before regular workouts begin are devoted to pushing the team's physical and mental limits.
"They're going to get to the point during this training where they're going to wonder if they can go anymore," Missouri coach Brian Smith said. "And they're going to realize that they can. Wrestling does that to you."
The term "stadium run" fails to capture the full extent of the team's Wednesday workouts. Not only do the wrestlers weave their way through the bleachers, their breathing devolving into a gasps for air; they also do bear crawls through the bleachers and up the stadium steps. Dripping with sweat, each man carries a teammate through the bleachers on his back, the passengers encouraging their partners and pushing them to make it up those last four or five steps to the landing.
"This stuff is just so different from any other sport," two-time All American senior Nick Marable said. "It's so much more disciplined, so much more work. I've gotten a lot of talk from football players about how they respect us so much for how hard we work."
It's hard not to respect the wrestlers for their performance in the stadium and their other training exercises. On the days when pounding the bleachers is not an activity on its agenda, the team will flip tires, push cars, or go on 6 1/2-mile runs around the perimeter of Columbia. Some days, they take dumbbells out of the basement of Hearnes Center and carry them from the bottom to the top levels, stopping on each floor to do push-ups.
"There's a lot of what some people might call crazy training going on here," Smith said.
According to Smith, there are no excuses, and everyone must pick up slack for his teammates. For instance, when the team was told to put cars in neutral and push them through a parking lot last week, they divided into groups of four per car. Marable's team, though, was not so lucky: one man got sick and the three remaining wrestlers had to push the car without him.
"It's all about going into it with the right attitude," Smith said. "We're going to push them to the limit, over the boundary of where they've been before."
Smith also tells the team that they should adopt his "one more" mentality.
"At the end of the training session we always do one extra thing," he said. "One more type of training. And also, they can all do one more hour of studying, one more hour of really anything. Everything will come together, and they'll do great things."
Such a grueling mentality is obviously challenging for the players to adopt, Smith said, and Marable agreed that the team's attitude is often enough to intimidate young wrestlers.
"My freshman year, I didn't expect any of this because coming out of high school it was so much different." Marable said. "After the first year it got easier, and now I know what to expect. It's hard. It's real hard"¦ But I'm used to it."
When the team's official workouts begin on Oct. 12, the Tigers will be in prime shape to begin training for what Marable said should be each of his teammates' main goal: a national championship. When regular season practices begin, the team will shift its workouts more toward wrestling and will spend less time doing the conditioning to which the team now devotes its days. Though Marable won't miss the intensity of preseason workouts, he does acknowledge how much they've helped him each year to build the strength necessary to have an edge in his matches.
"It works a little different, it works you harder, and it's fun," he said. "It may seem crazy, but it's worth it."