Askren's long wait for shot on Olympic mat ends in tears

BEIJING -- The hair is unbearably short now. It is curly and cropped close to his cauliflower ears, the victim of a scissor-happy barber in Beijing. The woman wouldn't stop cutting. Before Ben Askren knew it, 5 inches were on the floor.

This is how badly Askren wants to win a gold medal -- he shed his coveted locks, his trademark -- because the international guys like to pull on them when they wrestle.

"'Vision Quest' is a terrible, terrible movie," Askren says during a deep-thoughts session from his room in the Olympic Village. "It's just so stereotypical and '80s."

It is Monday afternoon in Beijing, less than 48 hours before the American will wrestle in his first Olympic match. He's had a lot of time to think about hair, handball and bad wrestling movies, maybe too much. For nearly two weeks, while Michael Phelps won eight gold medals and 180 national anthems were played, Askren has been waiting. The night of the Opening Ceremony, wide-eyed and anxious, he asked a strange young woman to take a picture of him. The woman ended up being President Bush's daughter Barbara.

Askren laughed it off. This is why matheads think he might go all the way -- he is loose and unconventional.

He has heard about the betting line, the one that puts his gold-medal chances at 20 to 1. It is not that ridiculous. Askren is 24 years old, a baby in the eyes of grizzled superheroes like Russian Buvaysa Saytiev and Cuban Ivan Fundora. Saytiev is the gold standard; he won it all in Atlanta and Athens. If he takes this Olympics, he will be considered one of the greatest wrestlers ever.

Nobody at China Agricultural University Gymnasium, it seems, is talking about Askren. The preview sheet for the 163-pound (74-kilogram) freestyle field comes out, and Askren is not mentioned among favorites or challengers. There is one sentence about him at the bottom.

"Ben Askren is an outspoken young wrestler with limited international experience…"

It doesn't rankle Askren.

"In my head, there is a 100 percent chance I'm going to win," he says. "I think I should win every time I go on the mat."

The thing about Askren's hair is that it is always a conversation piece. When he was at the University of Missouri in 2006, he cut it into a mullet after nationals. He was a rock star in Columbia, easily spotted around campus with his wild, blond 'fro.

His wrestling style was called "funky." His long, lanky body allowed him to take chances. Askren became a two-time NCAA champion at 174 pounds and a four-time finalist. He still holds the NCAA's single-season pins record and is the first Mizzou grad to become an Olympic wrestler.

When the local paper, the Columbia Tribune, did a Q&A with him called "The Ben Commandments," he was asked if he was good enough to make the Olympics.

"No," Askren said 17 months ago, "but I think I will be shortly."

Two times a day, 12 years of workouts. Askren says making the Olympics didn't hit him until he was asked to speak in front of a bunch of kids, telling them about how he got there. When he got in his car afterward, he started to bawl.

He bought a $27 suit at a silk store in Beijing, but he questions if it's actually an Armani. He scaled the Great Wall. Now, Askren is bored. He must lose about 10 pounds in 26 hours. Normally, wrestlers hate talking about cutting weight, especially just before a match.

Askren simply shrugs. He'll eat a small breakfast Monday, a couple of Clif Bars for lunch and a light dinner. He'll sweat off the bulk of the weight he needs to lose in the sauna. He'll also drop a few pounds with what he calls a "light" cardiovascular workout Monday night.

Fact is, he can't do much today. If he walks around the city, he'll expend too much energy. He can't talk too much on his international phone, either, because it costs too much.

He will have an entourage of roughly 30 people in Beijing on Wednesday, friends and followers from Missouri and his hometown of Hartland, Wis.
They love him for his humor, his swagger and the way his chin juts out before matches. At the Olympic trials this summer, some of his flock made up T-shirts that said, "Putting the Chin in China."

Askren told them to leave the shirts home because he "didn't want to make anyone upset" in Beijing. He has been wrestling internationally for only one year but was brimming with confidence at the trials, where he told reporters that he would win a gold medal.

"If I could compare him to one person …" says Martin Floreani of flowrestling.com, "he is to the wrestling world what Muhammad Ali is to the boxing world. He's that much of an entertainer.

"He's cocky, he's confident, he's brash. He's outspoken and funny. People either love him or hate him. It makes him special."

It is Tuesday afternoon, weigh-in time for Askren. He is not worried about making it. He scoffs at the notion that the scale might tip at 164. He's come too far to not make weight.

The weigh-in room is in the warm-up area of the China Agricultural University Gymnasium. Askren lays face-down on a mat before stepping on the scale. He comes in perfectly, then draws a card to find out who he'll be wrestling tomorrow. It is not good news. Askren picks No. 14, which means he will not get a bye and would have to face the Cuban in the second round and Saytiev in the third.

He says he is unconcerned about the draw, but is noticeably quieter than Monday.

"I'm excited about it because I get to see exactly how good I am," he says. "I'm ready to rumble."

He says he doesn't know when he'll go to bed tonight. "When I get tired."

He says he feels no pressure to win for the people of Hartland or Missouri.

"What I do tomorrow," he says, "I do for myself."

Askren watches the high jump on TV late Tuesday night before going to sleep. They get four Olympic channels in the village. He watched softball on Monday and let out an "Oooh" when someone got hit in the leg.

Most wrestlers hate being bothered the night before a match. An hour and a half before world trials last year, Askren chatted with Floreani about global warming while helpers scurried to fix his hair up in corn rows.

"I want to save my focus," Askren says. "I know I'm ready. I know I have all the ability."

The Askren cheering section is easy to find. They're the ones in the middle of the bleachers, wearing bushy wigs and holding American flags. When Askren walks out to the mat at about 10 a.m., he looks up at his fans, sticks his chin out and smiles.

His Hungarian opponent takes a quick 2-0 lead, then Askren turns it on. He pins Istvan Vereb, slaps his hands together, then nods to the crowd.

In 20 minutes, after a quick rest on the mats in the warm-up area, Askren will be out again to face Fundora. He's 32 and won a bronze medal in Athens.

The knock on Askren is he's great on the offensive but struggles when wrestlers go after his legs. Fundora does that immediately. He is one of the best tacklers in the world. Fundora wins the first period 3-1, and the "USA" chants can't help Askren. He falls behind 2-0, then 4-0.

He stands with his hands on his hips when it's over and the Cuban moves on. Askren must now hope that Fundora beats the Russian so he can continue on for a bronze. It's called, "Follow the leader." If Fundora loses, Askren is finished.

Saytiev beats the Cuban, and Askren finally emerges behind the gates to speak to the media. The chin quivers. He starts to sob.

"I don't know what you want to hear from me," Askren says. "My dreams are crushed.

"I just wasn't good enough. I sucked."

Two weeks, and he's done in two hours. Askren says he doesn't know where he'll go from here. There has been talk that he'll try mixed martial arts, but his coach, Shawn Charles, is sure Askren will be back. He couldn't end it this way.

After an awkward pause, Askren leaves. He has nothing else to say.

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.