Vega makes big impression

The grip from Leroy Vega’s handshake is firm and strong, much like a politician trying to gain your support.
But at just 5-feet-2 and 125 pounds, the sophomore wrestler doesn’t have the physical appearance of Jesse Ventura.
Or even Norm Coleman, for that matter.
Vega doesn’t appear to be intimidating, either. And things usually stay that way until Vega — the third-ranked wrestler in the country at 125 pounds — takes to the mats.
“I’ve done a lot of speeches at elementary schools, and when I walk into the classroom, the kids expect some 6-foot guy who weighs 280 pounds and looks like (teammate and heavyweight Brock Lesnar),” Vega said. “When they think of a wrestler they don’t think of a 5-foot-2 guy who weighs 125 pounds.
“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘You’re a wrestler? No way, look how small you are.'”
Vega uses his size as a motivating factor, especially after being looked at differently his whole life because of his stature.
“That eats me inside and makes me want to work 10 times harder,” he said.
That hard work started to pay off last season when Vega was a redshirt freshman who became an All-American. He placed third at the Big Ten championships and fifth at the NCAAs in 1999.
This season Vega is looking for more. He currently holds a 22-2 record on the season, the second-best on the Gophers’ roster.
But the success has some drawbacks. Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson said Vega’s national ranking (third) sometimes affects Vega out on the mats.
“He needs to stop worrying about where he is ranked,” Robinson said. “He thinks more about the winning than he does about being that dominating wrestler.
“When he wrestles hard and flurries, no one can stay with him.
“No one.”
While Robinson is concerned about his concentration, Vega says he’s over with worrying about his mental approach and ready to wrestle hard every match. Especially as he begins to face some tougher talent.
“Earlier I was wrestling to protect my ranking,” Vega said. “Lately I’ve started wrestling some top-ranked guys and it’s starting to go well for me.”
In the long term at Minnesota, Vega also has the chance to do something that is a rarity for a Minnesota wrestler: become a four-time All-American. Only Chad Kraft has been an All-American over four years.
But more importantly than his All-American status, Vega wants to become a national champion. He said Kraft and Tim Hartung — teammates of Vega last year and assistant coaches this season — told him not to strive to be an All-American, but to be a national champion.
“If I only trained this year to be another All-American, then I would accomplish my goal and it would be no big deal,” he said. “But if I train to be national champion then I would reach the next step.
“I’d rather people remember me as a three-time national champion than a four-time All-American. A national title is the pinnacle.”
When asked about which would be better, a team national championship or a personal one, Vega paused with a puzzled look as if to ask, “Why can’t I have both?”
“Hopefully, if I won a national championship it would help lead the team to a national championship. I’d love both.”

John R. Carter covers wrestling and welcomes comments at [email protected]