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Play together, stay together

Mizzou athletes make Olympics a family affair

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Aug. 14, 2008
Askren brothers

Mizzou wrestler Max Askren (left) shakes hands with his brother and coach Ben Askren during February's Beauty and the Beast wrestling and gymnastics event. Ben is now competing in the Olympics, and Max is helping him train.

At the 2008 summer Olympics, Team USA comes with a healthy dose of Team Mizzou — and all accompanying kith and kin. Two Tigers will be on the prowl for gold in Beijing in the coming week, and seasoned-athlete family members are aiding in the pursuit.

Two-time IAAF World Indoor champion shot-putter Christian Cantwell, a 2003 Mizzou graduate and assistant coach, competes in men’s track and field Aug. 15. On Aug. 20, two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion Ben Askren, a 2007 Mizzou graduate and assistant coach, competes in the 74 kg (163 pound) freestyle division. 

Either could become the second Mizzou graduate to win an Olympic gold medal, following in the footsteps of 1920s Olympian Jackson Scholz.

Brotherly bonds

Nearly every profile of Ben Askren includes mention of his literal profile: the recently shorn signature curls, the protuberant jaw line that inspired “Putting the Chin in China” T-shirts. Characterized as “flamboyant” and “funky,” Askren knows how to work a crowd with his crowing or create a buzz with the promise of a buzz cut.

But for all of his pomp and showmanship, Askren, 24, has a soft side that emerges when talk turns to his little brother. Max Askren, a Mizzou junior and two-time Big 12 wrestling champion, has been Ben’s training partner throughout the Olympics-preparation period. Ben, who coaches Max at Mizzou, says the two are “very, very close.”

“There are numerous people I wouldn’t be here without, and he’s definitely one of them,” the elder Askren says. “He’s been with me through everything.”

Max helps keep Ben in shape. He wrestles in the heavier 197-pound weight class — but, Ben quipped at a recent Mizzou Wrestling Foundation luncheon, “He’s still my little brother.” Max competed in the Olympic trials in June and didn’t place, but Ben says Max “definitely” has what it takes for the next Olympics.

He’s getting in plenty of practice. In Beijing, Max is on the mat with Ben daily.

“I know that he picked me to be his training partner because he is comfortable with me and knew I could get the job done,” Max says of his big bro. “He knew I would be the one who would go the furthest lengths to get him what he needs to prepare.”

Both say there’s little sibling rivalry.

“I think of it as a symbiotic relationship where it is good for both of us but there really isn't a whole lot said. It just kind of happens,” Max says. “I have a lot of fun with Ben.”

They've spent their free time in China dining out and haggling with vendors in the market. Of course, excessive togetherness can lead to some bickering, they admit.

“Every once in a while, when we’re around each other 24 hours a day for 14 days straight, I’ll want to kill him,” Ben says. “But when it’s more moderate, we get along really well.”

A match made on the field

Christian Cantwell

Christian Cantwell, a Mizzou graduate and coach, makes the winning shot put throw at the International Association of Athletics Foundations World Indoor Championships. Cantwell now is competing in the Olympics. Photo by Kirby Lee.

Olympic competition is a family business for the Mizzou shot-putter as well.

Christian Cantwell, 27, is married to shot-putter Teri Steer, who won bronze medals at the World Indoor Championships and the Pan American Games in 1999 before competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Cantwell, a seven-time Collegiate All-American and six-time Big 12 champion, says his wife has been giving him Olympics pointers, advising him, for example, to steer clear of the often-exhausting opening ceremonies.

He can use all the rest he can get. On May 27 the couple welcomed a son into their family. Jackson Daniel Cantwell weighed 11 pounds, 2 ounces, at birth, sparking speculation that he might follow in his parents’ footsteps.

While Cantwell trains, Steer is shouldering the baby duty. “She does a great job with Jackson,” Cantwell says. “She gets up with him every night.”

As Cantwell aims to build a legacy for his son, he’s already bringing pride to the senior generation of his family, including his 91-year-old grandmother in his home town, Eldon, Mo.

And he hasn’t forgotten his Mizzou family.

“I love the University of Missouri. Anything I can do to make them proud and make them feel like we accomplished something — that would be pretty cool,” says Cantwell. “That’s something I take pride in: where I’m from.”

Christian Cantwell competes in track and field Friday. Finals begin at 8 a.m. CDT Aug. 15. Ben Askren competes in the 74 kg freestyle weight class Wednesday. Finals begin at 4:55 a.m. CDT Aug. 20.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012