Taking it to the Max
How Askren became an NCAA national wrestling champion
When Max Askren entered the NCAA National Wrestling Tournament for the first time in 2007, he faced high expectations. With a 28-1 record, he had performed better than any other first-year Mizzou wrestler in the past decade and was the No. 1 seed in the 197-pound division. He also had a family reputation to uphold; his older brother, wrestler Ben Askren, was a two-time NCAA national champion and a charismatic presence in Mizzou Athletics. (The following year he became a U.S. Olympian.)
By the end of the first day of the 2007 tournament, Max Askren had lost his first two matches and was eliminated from further competition. He would never again enter the tournament ranked higher than No. 5.
The next two years, Askren finished in seventh place and fifth place at nationals, making him a two-time NCAA All-American. He had one year left to chase a national championship title, but an ongoing injury with damaged and bulging discs in his back took him away from the sport.
“I decided I wasn't even going to wrestle,” he says. Askren stayed away from the mat for several months — his longest departure from the sport since age 5 — before his injuries improved enough for him to continue. With guidance from Head Coach Brian Smith, he trained less intensely than in the past and wrestled in fewer matches. “I love wrestling; I just couldn't do it for a while,” he says. “My health was my first concern. I've got the rest of my life to live. I'm 23 years old.”
The big win
His senior year Askren entered the 2010 national tournament as the No. 6 seed with a 15-2 record in the 184-pound division, a lower weight class for him. The day before the national tournament, he weighed about 11 pounds over his weight class limit, which he attributes to drinking more than a gallon of water a day to stay hydrated. “I've never not made weight,” he says. “If you're doing things right, there's no way you should miss it.” Askren says he didn't struggle to make weight; he just cut out cookies and ice cream and ate more fruit, nuts, rice and pasta. “For the most part, I ate well,” he says. “I just ate smaller portions.”
In complete contrast to his freshman-year performance, Askren won every match at nationals in 2010. He dominated his competition on the first day of the tournament and earned his first two pins of the season. After defeating the No. 3 seed the next day, Askren entered the semifinals. A sudden victory takedown in overtime against Wyoming’s Joe LeBlanc secured him a spot in the finals.
Askren wrestled his last match on national television in front of a sold-out crowd. His opponent, Boise State’s Kirk Smith, hadn’t lost all season and was the No. 1 seed. In the first period of action, Askren controlled the pace and built a 7-1 lead. Smith never recovered, and Askren won 10-3.
After Askren won the national title, his older brother teared up in an interview and spoke about the pressure Max had endured growing up in his shadow. “He’s had so much to live up to,” Ben Askren told the interviewer. “It was hard on him for years. And it made me sad, so sad, because I didn’t ever want to do that to him and inadvertently I did.” He went on to tell his younger brother that he loved him no matter what happened at the national tournament. “I knew that if Max wrestled to his potential that he’d win a title. Easy.”
When Max Askren had done what his older brother knew he could do, he pointed to the section of cheering Mizzou fans and smiled. He had waited a long time for this moment. A sold-out Omaha Qwest Center audience of 15,613 fans honored Askren as the best 184-pound wrestler in the country. ESPN waited to interview him after he left the mat. His brother waited to put him in one more wrestling hold: a bear hug.
“I was the one hiding my ability,” Askren says. “I was afraid of what I was capable of doing or not doing. At some point, I had to do it.”
The next move
A week after winning the title, Askren was back on the mat in preparation to potentially represent the USA in the World and Olympic tournaments. “It’s not like I won it and now I’m done,” he says. “It's an achievement, but it's not who you are. Nothing really changed about me. I’m still the same person.”
Askren wrestles because he loves to wrestle. Asked about his mindset for the final match of his college career, Askren says he didn’t have a game plan. “Honestly, I think that’s how things work better for me, not only in wrestling but in life,” he says. “I went out there with no expectations and just wrestled.”
Six MU wrestlers qualified to participate at the national tournament in Omaha: Todd Schavrien (141), Nick Marable (165), Dorian Henderson (174), Brent Haynes (197) and Mark Ellis (HWT). Ellis, the 2009 national champion, finished sixth and joined Askren as an All-American. All six wrestlers contributed to Mizzou finishing in the top 10 in the tournament.