Wednesday May 8th, 2013

When Cael Sanderson went 159-0 as a four-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State, from 1999-2002, he set a standard that could not be topped: No collegian will ever have a more perfect record than Sanderson's. Getting into the G.O.A.T. conversation, post-Sanderson, would require doing something different, something unique, and there were a few possible openings. For one, Sanderson redshirted as a true freshman in 1998 -- and lost a match before doing so. Who knows if he would've gone an undefeated 4-for-4 without that year of preparation? Also, Sanderson won his four titles while competing in two weight classes: 184 as a freshman, sophomore and junior; and 197 as a senior. Could a new superstar emerge and win titles in three classes, or even four?

Enter Kyle Dake, who grew up just 5.5 miles from Cornell's campus, in Lansing, N.Y., with a father, Doug, who was an All-American wrestler at Kent State and a mother, Jodi, who competed for the school's gymnastics team. Kyle, their eldest son, would become a wrestler with a rare blend of brute strength and flexible athleticism -- and one with deep ties to the Big Red, for whom Doug was a former assistant coach. In a November 2002 photo of the first match ever at Cornell's Friedman Wrestling Center -- now hanging in the building's lobby -- Kyle and Doug can be spotted in the bleachers, just off the right edge of the mat.

Seven years later, Kyle would be competing there as a true freshman and winning the 141-pound national title. As a sophomore, he moved up to 149 pounds -- and won again. As a junior, he moved up to 157 pounds -- and won again, this time going undefeated. Even though 157 was his natural weight class, he moved up to 165 as a senior -- and won his fourth national title, while going undefeated again. Four championships without a redshirt year, in four weight classes, with a 137-4 overall record while also being named a three-time academic All-American at an Ivy League school? That's why Dake is a nominee for SI's inaugural College Athlete of the Year award, and that's why he -- and not Sanderson -- might have pulled off the greatest feat in the history of college wrestling.

"What Kyle did," his coach at Cornell, Rob Koll, says, "is more remarkable than anybody who came before him. I'm not saying he was better than Cael or better than Pat Smith [the other four-time champ in NCAA history, from Oklahoma State], I'm just saying what he did was more remarkable, even though he lost some matches. Because at the end of the day it's about winning the national championship, and he was able to do it as a freshman. And if you look at the competition Kyle had versus the other four-time national champions, it's so much stiffer you can't even compare."

Koll is referring, in part, to the fact that Dake's jump to 165 set up a series of three showdowns with Penn State's David Taylor, who had won the 2012 Hodge Trophy, wrestling's equivalent of the Heisman, in the same year Dake was an undefeated national champ. Taylor was viewed as the king of college wrestling -- until Dake beat him in all three meetings as a senior, including a dramatic, 5-4 victory in the national title match.

The tagline on Dake's Instagram feed reveals what he plans to do next: Striving for perfection, got #4 ... Future world and Olympic champ. To do so, he'll have to make the switch from folkstyle to freestyle and beat out former Nebraska star Jordan Burroughs, the defending Olympic gold medalist at 163 pounds. That will not be easy. But can you blame Dake for believing in himself with such certainty? When NCAA championships were at stake, neither the opponent nor the weight class ever seemed to matter.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.