Perfect! Iowa State senior Cael Sanderson closed out his sensational career with a sterling 159-0 record and his fourth NCAA title

April 01, 2002
April 01, 2002

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April 1, 2002

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Perfect! Iowa State senior Cael Sanderson closed out his sensational career with a sterling 159-0 record and his fourth NCAA title

To appreciate what Cael Sanderson did last Saturday, when the Iowa
State senior became the first college wrestler to finish his
career undefeated (159-0) and win four national titles, you have
to understand how hard it is for a wrestler to be perfect. One
fluke move, one slip, can cost him a match. Oklahoma State's Pat
Smith, the sport's only other four-time champion, lost five times
during his career in the early 1990s. Dan Gable, the country's
most eminent grappler, won his first 100 matches at Iowa State
before losing his last, to Larry Owings in 1970, on a blunder in
the final minute.

This is an article from the April 1, 2002 issue

"The hardest part about going undefeated is winning all your
matches," Sanderson joked after taking a 12-4 decision over
sophomore Jon Trenge of Lehigh in the final of the 197-pound
class at the NCAA championships in Albany, N.Y. The statement got
a few chuckles, but you had to wonder if it was even true. What
could be harder than coping with the pressure of staying
undefeated, of doing something not even Gable--who at the 1972
Olympics did not give up a single point to any opponent--could?
That pressure lived with Sanderson so long that it should have
been paying him rent. The attention the streak brought him was
unprecedented for a college wrestler. He was even followed around
all season by a documentary crew from Iowa Public Television.

All of that came to a head in Albany, where the streak was
certain to end, one way or another. En route to the tournament
Sanderson was thinking not about the historical significance of
what he was on the verge of accomplishing but about how many
people were going to want to ask him about it. "Leaving Des
Moines, I knew it was going to be a long weekend when I saw
[coach Bobby Douglas] at the bar in the airport," says Sanderson.

"In this kind of situation the person who can beat Cael is Cael,"
Oklahoma coach Jack Spates said the day before the tournament
began. "And that's kind of what happened with Dan Gable. There
was so much media hyping it, and he was caught up in it through
no choice of his own, because Gable was not one to embrace the
media. But the tension got to him. The pressure got to him. And
that, with the combination of wrestling a great opponent,
resulted in probably the greatest upset of all time."

It was hard to tell if the hubbub had any effect on Sanderson,
22, who grew up in Heber City, Utah, as the third of four
wrestling brothers and is tougher to read than a faded copy of
Finnegans Wake. His answers to the press were short, polite and
often prefaced with an apology for not being able to better
express his feelings. ("I wish I were a little better at
speaking," he said after the title match. "I can't really
describe my emotions.") Many wrestlers get ready for a match by
having a member of their coaching staff slap them silly, as Jack
Nicholson did to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Sanderson's prematch
routine in Albany involved giving Douglas the kind of
dispassionate handshake normally seen at the conclusion of an
aluminum-siding transaction.

But Sanderson's stoicism has served him well, and it's hard to
argue with success. He qualified for the U.S. national team last
summer but gave up his spot when the world championships were
pushed back from September to November due to the Sept. 11
attacks; he didn't want the competition to interfere with his
commitment to the Cyclones. (Brandon Eggum, who took his place on
the U.S. team, won a silver at the worlds, so Sanderson could
easily have been the reigning world champ.) During his senior
season 34 of his 40 matches ended in either a pin or a technical
fall, which occurs when a wrestler builds a 15-point lead. The
closest he came all season to losing was a 6-1 win over Trenge in

You have to go back a ways to find a match that Sanderson lost,
but you don't have to look far to find the guy who beat him. Joe
Heskett, a teammate at Iowa State, defeated him at the University
Nationals during their freshman year when they were sitting out
as redshirts and wrestling unattached. (The pair also split two
matches in high school.) But that was four years and about 30
pounds ago. While Heskett has remained roughly the same weight--he
won the national championship at 165 pounds on Saturday--Sanderson
has bulked up. He wrestled at 184 pounds in his first three years
at Iowa State before moving up to 197 this season. The added heft
and strength didn't come at the expense of speed and quickness,
as was evident from Sanderson's lightning-strike takedowns. "Cael
has grown to an immense size, but he's the quickest wrestler in
the business," says Heskett. "It gives him a lot of latitude, and
he's able to do some great things because of his size, speed and

Sanderson's smarts aren't confined to wrestling. He completed
his degree in art and design in December 2000, and some of his
sketches--especially those of Douglas--are quite good. His
artistic talent is the cornerstone of a theory that Trenge, who
went the distance with Sanderson three times this season, has
developed. "Ever read about Musashi?" Trenge asks by way of
launching into said theory. "He was a 17th-century samurai
warrior who said that if you want to be a good warrior, you have
to study something else, like art. He studied painting and felt
that that made him well-rounded and able to understand things
better. Sanderson's a caricaturist, so maybe he can visualize
things in his head. To draw things well, you have to be able to
visualize, and that's a big part of wrestling. You have to
picture where things are going to be next, before they happen. I
think that helps him get those shots [for takedowns] in."

Musashi, who also went through his career undefeated, felt
compelled to give something back to his sport, as it were, so he
hung up his two swords at age 59, decamped to a cave for two
years and wrote a treatise on battle strategy called A Book of
Five Rings, a dog-eared copy of which is now in Trenge's
possession. Sanderson, who hopes the five Olympic rings are in
his future, has already done plenty for his sport. At a time
when college wrestling programs are regularly being cut,
Sanderson's run has given the sport some much-needed exposure.
"This is a defining moment in [college] wrestling," says
Douglas. "Wrestling has been the invisible sport, and Cael has
lit a fire with his performance that will perhaps keep it alive."

Maybe that's why no one was rooting against Sanderson. The
wrestling championships took place at the same time as the men's
and women's NCAA basketball tournaments, in which everyone loves
Cinderella. But in Albany it was all about Goliath. The crowds
gave Sanderson raucous receptions while virtually ignoring his
opponents. And the guys who had vied to be his Larry Owings
harbored no resentment. "Dude, he's awesome," said Trenge the
night before the final. "I give him all the props in the world."

When Kyle Cerminara, a freshman at Buffalo, looked at the
brackets, he saw that if he won his first match, he would face
Sanderson. Cerminara, who idolizes Sanderson, had no problem
accepting his almost certain fate: a second-round defeat. "My
first thought was that it would be an honor to get a chance to
wrestle him and, one way or another, be part of history,"
Cerminara said after winning his opening match. Six hours later
he took the mat against Sanderson and came within 27 seconds of
going the seven-minute distance before being pinned. "I was
getting tired, and it was like he was warming up," Cerminara
said. "He kept getting stronger during the match, and he has
incredible speed. As far as I'm concerned, he's the perfect

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES CYCLONE WARNING Sanderson (right) blew away Trenge in the 197-pound final, avoiding a last-match letdown like Gable's.
"THIS IS A DEFINING MOMENT in [college] wrestling," says
Douglas. "Cael has lit a fire that might keep the sport alive."