Cael Sanderson has fulfilled all of his promise, met all of the expectations. The best wrestler in U.S. college history is now the best in the world,
A winner since first pulling on a singlet for his father-coach in Heber City, Utah, Sanderson beat South Korea's Moon Eui-jae 3-1 Saturday in the
Olympic 185-pound freestyle finals to cap his unequaled career.
Four-time high school champion. Four-time NCAA champion at Iowa State. Now the world champion. Sanderson has long been held to a higher standard than
any other active U.S. wrestler, and he has never disappointed.
He wasn't about to disappoint now, either, not in the biggest match of his life on the world's biggest stage. He came through, just like he always
has, after two surprising American finalists, Stephen Abas and Jamill Kelly, lost their gold-medal matches.
Down 1-0 early in the second period after Moon slipped a clinch, Sanderson became more aggressive and rolled Moon for a two-point back exposure, then
tripped him with a single-leg takedown in the final minutes for his final point. He had to rally in two of his final three Olympics matches.
"I didn't wrestle perfect, I made mistakes and gave up some points," Sanderson said. "But I was able to score and get wins."
Doesn't he always? Just to get to the gold-medal match, Sanderson beat Cuba's Yoel Romero -- a wrestler he had never beaten -- 3-2 in the semifinals
earlier in the day. Then Moon upset Russia's Sazhid Sazhidov, who had narrowly beaten Sanderson in last year's world finals.
"You can say all you want about talent, but the reason Cael Sanderson is an Olympic champion is he has the heart of a champion," said Iowa State coach
Bobby Douglas, who was in Sanderson's corner. "His college career was great, but that can't compare to this. This was the greatest moment of his
And right at that moment, he didn't exactly know what to do. Sanderson, 25, has never been truly comfortable with the attention focused on him, the
Wheaties boxes and magazine covers, so he certainly didn't have a celebration scripted.
He waved to the crowd, including wife Kelly and father Steve, and displayed the flag, but that was about it for a guy who has made no plans except to
go back home and get a milk shake at the Dairy Queen.
"I had to get out of there before I made a fool of myself," Sanderson said.
Not likely. As good as he was in college -- he was 159-0 -- he has improved since ending his Iowa State career two years ago. He is as quick as ever
-- Douglas calls him the fastest big man in U.S. wrestling history -- and is becoming ever wiser in the often peculiar ways of international
"The whole thing is unreal," Sanderson said. "At this very moment, it's hard to believe it's here. I've spent so long thinking about it."
It's also hard to believe he almost didn't make the Olympic team. He lost his U.S. title to former Iowa wrestler Lee Fullhart in April, then needed
three close and difficult matches to win his spot back from Fullhart at the Olympic trials in May. None of the other six freestyle team members came
so close to losing their spot.
Now, he finds himself on the short list of the all-time best U.S. wrestlers.
While excellence has long been projected for Sanderson, it certainly wasn't for Kelly -- perhaps the most overachieving U.S. wrestling silver medalist
He never won a California high school title or made All-American at Oklahoma State, but won three straight Olympic matches before losing to two-time
world champion Elbrus Tedeyev of Ukraine 5-1 at 145½ pounds (66kg).
"I got a little timid," Kelly said.
Kelly nearly lost in the semifinals -- the referee was about to raise the hand of Russia's Makhach Murtazaliev -- before Kelly was awarded two points
via video replay and a 3-1 overtime decision.
Abas, a three-time NCAA champion at Fresno State, was older (26) than 121-pounds finalist Mavlet Batirov (20) of Russia and more experienced
internationally, but it hardly mattered in Batirov's 9-1 victory.
Batirov was wrestling in juniors two years ago and was just 14th in last year's world championships, but won his five Olympic matches by a combined
score of 43-3.
Also Saturday, Americans Daniel Cormier (211½ pounds, 96kg) and Joe Williams (163 pounds, 74kg) powered through two pool round matches to advance,
but Eric Guerrero (132 pounds, 60kg) lost twice and was eliminated.