ATHENS, Greece - 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, too.
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.
“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 life.”
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 wrestling.
“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.
Mark Dadswell / Getty Images
Cael Sanderson, right, earned his first win in three tries versus Cuba's Yoel Romero in Saturday's semifinal match.
While excellence has long been projected for Sanderson, it certainly wasn’t for Kelly — perhaps the most overachieving U.S. wrestling silver medalist ever.
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.
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