Unbeaten Iowa State senior nears record, championship

Friday, March 15, 2002

AMES, Iowa -- Cael Sanderson furrowed his brow and thought for a moment as he tried to recall his earliest wrestling memory.

Finally, he remembered a youth program in his hometown of Heber City, Utah. He was 6.

"We'd practice once a week and wrestle on Saturday," Sanderson said. "You'd line up and wrestle somebody close to your weight, and then both guys' hands were raised."

The raising of the hand signifies a victory in wrestling, something that has happened often for Sanderson since then. In fact, it has happened every single time the Iowa State senior has stepped on the mat in college -- 154 matches, 154 victories.

It's a record never before achieved in college wrestling, not by Dan Gable or Pat Smith or any of the others who dominated the sport in their time.

In 154 matches, you'd think Sanderson would have one bad day. Or he'd slip and get taken down. Or an opponent would get lucky. Nope. It has never happened.

"It's mind boggling," Nebraska coach Mark Manning said.

With five more victories, Sanderson would have his own place in the history of a sport that traces its origins back to ancient Greece -- the first unbeaten four-time Division I champion. He has won three national titles at 184 pounds and will try to add the title at 197 in the NCAA meet this weekend in Albany, N.Y.

Smith, who wrestled at Oklahoma State, is the only wrestler with four NCAA titles, but he lost five times in his career. Gable was undefeated in high school and college until losing in the NCAA finals his senior year.

"It's kind of weird if I think about it, but I really don't think about it very often," Sanderson said. "It's gone by so fast. That's a lot of matches. It's hard to believe I've wrestled that many matches and now it's almost over."

What's hard to believe is that one wrestler could be so much better than everyone else. Though moving up a weight class put him against bigger, stronger opponents, Sanderson has been even more dominant this season.

Only two of his 35 matches against collegians have gone the full seven minutes, both against Lehigh's Jon Trenge, 16-5 and 6-1. Sanderson has won the rest by a pin or a technical fall, which is a 15-point victory that stops the match.

He does it with a dazzling array of quick moves -- single-leg takedowns, double-leg takedowns, grabbing an opponent by the ankle with one hand and dragging him down.

"He's just a very talented athlete," Oklahoma State coach John Smith said. "He's got enough talent that probably any sport he wanted to do, he'd be successful at. He happens to be a wrestler, which is good for us."

Just as Gable was in his day, Sanderson has become the poster boy for college wrestling. He has been featured on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated. Douglas says he has heard of babies being named after him. There's even a Cael Sanderson bobblehead doll, something Sanderson finds flattering and embarrassing at the same time.

So if Sanderson wins again, does that make him the greatest college wrestler ever?

"I don't think there's any doubt," Gable said. "He has been getting better all the time. He has been dominating people.

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