Darrell Vasquez does not fit the stereotype of a meathead, champion wrestler.
His voice exudes the kind of warmth and friendliness that seems to sharply contrast his chiseled, 133-pound physique.
The industrial technology senior is extremely grounded and easygoing, but it’s his impressive drive and unwavering focus that have led him to be so successful throughout his wrestling career.
“I’m looking forward to what I know I can accomplish, and that’s being a national champion,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez is heading into the 2006-07 season ranked fourth in the nation by Wrestling International Newsmagazine (WIN) and third in the Pac-10.
The Mustangs, who finished No. 23 last season, are ranked No. 17 in the nation by the WIN preseason poll.
Vasquez’ career has not been a smooth ride to the top, though.
After being a four-year letterman at Bakersfield High, he became the school’s first ever four-time state champion and ended his prep career with a record of 201-7.
When he arrived at Cal Poly as a freshman in 2002, he came down with mononucleosis and was sick for months. He ended up redshirting that season and finished 5-2 overall.
“In wrestling there are a lot of injuries and illnesses,” Vasquez said. “I’ve come across a lot of things.”
He finished his sophomore year 30-7 overall, placing second in the Pac-10 Championships and sixth in the nation, but was once again struck by illness.
Vasquez went into the 2004-05 season ranked second nationally and first in the Pac-10, but was forced to sit out his junior year because of another bout with mononucleosis.
“It hit me hard,” Vasquez said. “It just wasn’t worth pushing through the pain. Who knew how long it would have taken to get better?”
When faced with disappointing injuries or illnesses, Vasquez said he tries to focus on his future in wrestling and the rest of his career so that he isn’t tempted to compete and hurt himself further.
Last year, during Vasquez’ fourth year, he again found health and success, finishing third in the Pac-10, but losing the match for All-American recognition.
One thing that makes Vasquez so unique as an athlete is the amount of thought he puts into spiritual and mental preparation for competition.
For Vasquez, his beloved sport of wrestling is only partially about physical strength and skill.
“We are a different breed of athletes,” he said. “You have to be mentally tough.”
Perhaps Vasquez’ mental focus can be contributed to the fact that his wrestling career has become so intertwined with the rest of his lifestyle.
Vasquez began wrestling at age 9, following the examples of his two older brothers. When his oldest brother Larry left high school baseball tryouts early and came home announcing he was going to wrestle instead, his other brother Nathan followed suit, and Darrell continued the legacy.
Part of the reason Vasquez stays so grounded is because he works closely with Cal Poly wrestling head coach John Azevedo, whom he has known and trained with at wrestling camps since he was just 10 years old. When it came down to choosing a university to attend as a senior in high school, Vasquez took official visits to Nebraska and Fresno State, but eventually settled on Cal Poly because he knew Azevedo would be his coach.
“We had a great camaraderie and a great friendship that has continued to evolve,” Vasquez said. “That was my No. 1 reason for coming to Cal Poly. It was him.”
Vasquez said that he has learned a lot about wrestling from Azevedo, but his coach has had an even more significant impact on him as a person.
“A lot of the technique that I’ve learned, a lot of the person I am inside and outside of wrestling has been under his coaching,” Vasquez said. Azevedo believes that knowing Vasquez for so long has helped him to understand his needs and how to get him motivated when he’s coaching him.
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen anybody with as much talent as Darrell,” Azevedo said. “If he wants to become an Olympic champion, I think he could.”
Perhaps it’s Azevedo’s mentoring or maybe even that wrestling that runs in Vasquez’ blood, but he admits he has recently been pondering the possibility of being a coach himself.
“I can’t see myself graduating and giving up wrestling,” Vazquez said. “I do want to get into coaching at a college level. A dream right now would be staying in San Luis and coaching at Cal Poly.”
Vasquez would eventually like to use his major in industrial technology to work in business some day, but for now he has remained focused on wrestling.
“I can’t see myself letting that part of my life go,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez is looking forward to starting the new season in a couple of weeks, and believes this year’s team to be one of the strongest and most talented in his time at Cal Poly.
Azevedo said that regardless of how well Vasquez and the team performs, he hopes to, “set high goals and work hard to achieve them.”
Cal Poly’s wrestling season will kick off with the Green and Gold intrasquad scrimmage meet to be held on campus at 7 p.m. Nov. 16.
The Mustangs’ first home dual meet of the season is Nov. 9 against Oklahoma, which finished third in the nation last year.