Sanderson in his own league
By Scott Dochterman
CEDAR RAPIDS - Although it's been five years since he finished his collegiate wrestling career with 159 wins and no losses, Cael Sanderson remains almost a mythical figure for Iowa State fans.
Sanderson, 27, is set to enter his second season as the Cyclones' wrestling coach. He spent nearly an hour uninterrupted as he signed autographs for Iowa State fans last Wednesday at Lindale Mall. He embraced fans with hugs and handshakes and neither in small doses.
``Well, Cael is a very popular person, and rightfully so,'' Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said, ``for what he did as an athlete and what he did this year as a coach.''
In 2004, Sanderson completed the ultimate wrestling journey by winning the 85-kilogram gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games. He also won the 2002 ESPY Award from ESPN as the nation's top college male athlete.
In some ways it's difficult for Sanderson to reach past his mat prowess and focus on his task toward building Iowa State into national title contenders. But those moments are few, as testament of the Cyclones' surprising second-place finish at
the 2007 NCAA championships.
``Sometimes at night, I guess, when I'm laying in bed trying to fall asleep,'' Sanderson said of when he thinks of competing again. ``I'm pretty focused on coaching and trying to help Iowa State win a national championship and help these kids reach their goals. I'm committed to them. It's fun to think about, but it's not realistic for me. I've moved past that.''
So, last time, is he done wrestling competitively?
``I'm done wrestling. I'm done competing,'' he said emphatically.
``It's just an adjustment, I'm extremely competitive. I always think I can do whatever as an athlete. But I'm trying to do it as a coach now. I've still got a lot to learn.''
Sanderson's focus now is on leading his Cyclones to a national title, something that last happened in 1987. But with Sanderson's leadership, it almost happened this year.
Iowa State started the season 2-2 in duals, including a 24-6 loss at Iowa and a dual defeat against eventual national champion Minnesota. The Cyclones regrouped and won 11 of their last 12 duals (the only other loss was to Minnesota at the National Duals) and titles at the Midlands and Big 12 championships. Ultimately, Sanderson helped Trent Paulson claim the 157-pound championship and was named National Coach of the Year.
``It's been a good year,'' Sanderson said. ``I've learned a lot and grown a lot as a coach. I think our program continues to make progress, and we saw that with our team, starting low and finishing high. So, we've got a great staff, and I think we've got a lot of exciting things going on with our program and also with our athletic department.''
Sanderson tends to under-sell his impact. He gave full credit to his assistants and wrestlers when asked about his national award.
``That's really a reflection of the overall program and the direction we're heading,'' he said. ``Our assistant coaches and our wrestlers in the program, they're all willing and eager to learn and do what it takes.
``It's a great honor, but it's really a reflection of the whole program.''
Sanderson's wrestlers are fighting through off-season workouts, and an influx of red-shirt freshmen will battle for starting positions this fall. Still, Sanderson prefers sharing his knowledge and skills on the mat than anything else.
``I love competing with them - steel sharpens steel,'' he said. ``We want to get in there and battle, and every chance I get, I look forward to that. That's one of my favorite things each day is wrestling.''