Vasquez battles back from bout with Epstein-Barr

Wrestlers will tell you they are a different breed. Their sport requires a unique mentality because wrestling is not fun. One does not "play" wrestling as one would play football or baseball. It is a constant struggle. It is a physical battle. It is mind over matter, but it is more than that; it is discipline over self.

A wrestler's body is pushed to the limit 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He cannot eat what he wants for fear of gaining a precious pound. He must never stray. At his peak, he is a chiseled mass of self-control.

Now imagine if, as a wrestler, you could not push yourself to those extremes. You could go only so far before forces beyond your control wiped you out. You would be defeated. You would be reduced. You would feel devastated.

You would be Cal Poly wrestler Darrell Vasquez.

Vasquez graduated from Bakersfield (Calif.) High as the only four-time state wrestling champion in California history. He had several different college options based on that success, but he chose Cal Poly largely because of respect for coach John Azevedo, formerly an assistant in the program.

Now a fifth-year senior, Vasquez has seen his college years become anything but what he expected. He has battled symptoms of the Epstein-Barr virus for much of his college career. The virus causes extreme fatigue, which is difficult for any athlete, but particularly so for a wrestler.

"I was tired, and I couldn't get out of bed," said Vasquez, who first developed symptoms as a freshman. "They call it chronic fatigue. When I pushed my body to the limit, it would shut down. My body wouldn't go where I wanted it to go."

The result has been an on-again, off-again sort of career. After his initial season, a redshirt year, Vasquez felt great. The 133-pounder compiled a 30-7 record, took second at the Pac-10 championships and was an NCAA All-American with a sixth-place finish at the national meet.

He entered the 2004-05 season ranked No. 2 in the country at his weight. He had visions of multiple NCAA titles. But then the symptoms returned. This time, they were bad enough that he had to sit out the entire season.

"It's not really something that I sat around and thought about," he said. "But it was frustrating."

Vasquez came back last year and had an overall record of 24-5. But he fell short of All-American status (top eight or higher at the NCAA met) and generally wasn't happy with his level of performance.

"Most of it was just from having my head kind of out of it. I just didn't do it really smart, dealing with weight, and I didn't feel good the entire year," Vasquez said. "I kept my weight too high, and I was tired all the time, but that year had nothing to do with being sick."

It was all in his head, Vasquez said.

"I think it was mental, the stress of competition," he said. "Coming back, it began to get in my head when people would say, 'Can he do it, can he come back and wrestle?'

"I'm confident in myself, and I say I don't care what they say, but it would get to me. All the pressure, being out for the year, I didn't know what would happen."

And that brings us to this year. Vasquez is a fifth-year senior with a world of talent. He is finally healthy, and he's hoping the gifts that led to all those high school championships will be converted into NCAA success.

"I'm feeling 100 percent, mentally and physically," Vasquez said. "I'm doing all the right things."

It's been evident on the mat. Vasquez is 13-2 after splitting a pair of bouts Monday, and he is rated No. 6 in the country by WIN. The loss Monday was a tightly contested match against Oklahoma State's Coleman Scott, rated No. 4, which Vasquez ultimately lost 11-8.

Off the mat, Vasquez is like any other college student. He goes to school. He likes to play video games, the guitar and bodyboard, the latter being an ideal hobby for his location.

"I wish I could do it more," he said. "That will be for a later time period of my life."

Time will tell when that period will start. He can petition for a sixth year of eligibility because of the year lost to illness -- and thinks he will get it -- but that can't happen until after this season is over. Right now, Vasquez is concentrating on the present. For a change, that's been a nice thing to think about.

"This is what I'm here for, and I haven't accomplished my goals yet. That's what I want to do," he said.

But doesn't he ever get frustrated about the missed opportunities, the time that has been robbed from him? Vasquez brushes off the notion. Maybe he is ready to carry the load -- ready to resume the punishment a wrestler must take.

"It's been a long road," he says diplomatically, "but that's why I've been in this sport for so long."

Quick Takedowns
• Tennessee-Chattanooga scored a big victory for its program Sunday when it knocked off then-No. 14 Ohio State 28-13 in a dual in Columbus, Ohio.

"To come on the road and beat a ranked team in front of their home fans is a big accomplishment. We had contributions from everyone in the lineup, and I am extremely proud," head coach Chris Bono said.

Michael Rand is a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He can be contacted at mrand333@yahoo.com.