In his days of coaching Penn State to its first national team title this season, Cael Sanderson was on the mat every day. "Old man," his young wrestlers would tell him. "What have you got?"
But it was never the bruising and banging that got to Sanderson, six years removed from his Olympic gold medal and nine years away from completing his reign as an unbeaten collegian for Iowa State at 159-0. No, to be honest, it was the itching.
"It was always in the back of my mind how hard it was to stay away from the challenge of competing," says Sanderson, 10 days shy of his 32nd birthday. "That feeling never goes away. I'm not sure it ever will."
With little fanfare, Sanderson has been adding the sessions and losing the weight. In the back of his mind, the mornings wrestling with his collegians always had a dual purpose.
"I was doing everything to fire them up," he said by phone Wednesday night. "But actually they were firing me up." On Thursday he plans to make it official. One of the greatest U.S. wrestlers in history will announce his intentions to aim for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team.
It will be a busy weekend for Sanderson, who will be inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame on Thursday and will wrestle up to seven matches at the U.S. World Team Trials in Oklahoma City on Saturday. Should Sanderson win his 185½-pound weight class, he'll represent the U.S. at the world championships in Istanbul in September. If he earns a medal at worlds this year, he will gain a spot in the finals at the Olympic trials in Iowa City next year.
"I want to start moving up the ladder," he says.
Those who know Sanderson, as publicity-averse as a star can get, know he is not in this for the ink. He has told his family, his wrestlers, a few friends, his staff at Penn State and stayed clear of everyone else before speaking with SI. As much as he has opened up and become more detailed in his answers as a coach, the sight of Sanderson, stone-faced, lock-jawed and purposeful, is a more comfortable posture than the man in the suit who now willingly shakes hands with alumni and donors.
"I'd like this to be under the radar, the way it always has been," he says, "even though I know it won't be possible soon. For me the question is: Did I honestly do enough with the ability I was born with? I don't think God cares if I win one gold medal or two; I think He gave us this ability and did I do everything I could with what I was given? That desire to compete, to fight for something, to rise to a challenge, I'm not sure it goes away. My window is short now. I want to take this as far as I can."
Sanderson actually made a mini-comeback in March when he fulfilled a promise to his team. If they won the Big Ten title, he told them, he would wrestle at a qualifying event at SUNY-Brockport in March. Of course Sanderson blitzed the field in the 211-pound class, but that was just a nod to his wrestlers at Penn State. Wasn't it?
"It was something else in my mind," he says, "but I didn't really say much about it."
In fact Sanderson was taking his own temperature, seeing if he might be able to parlay his knowledge and residual fitness into a serious return.
"I know other people sometime make comebacks that don't go that well," he says. I don't want to be like that. It's the competitor in me. I can't even picture or imagine not winning."
Though Sanderson qualified at the 211-pound class, he decided to cut weight to in order to avoid wrestling against Jake Varner, a two-time NCAA champ from Iowa State and close friend.
"Jake is number one at his weight and he's like a brother to me," Sanderson says. "I don't want to be trying to take his spot away."
Still, moving down in weight is no easy feat. Whereas there were 10 weight classes when Sanderson coached at the NCAAs, there are just seven at the Olympic and world levels, meaning Sanderson must drop back to his old competition weight 185½ pounds from the 211 he carried during most of the season. He will also face a strong field that includes Quentin Wright, the only Nittany Lion who won an individual title at the NCAAs this year.
"I don't really know where I am physically and I won't until I face that first hard test," he says. "Then I need to just be in there training, because that's what it takes."
And for now it's the only way to stop the itching.