He didn't want to be there. Still, he went. Cael Sanderson, an
Iowa State junior and an emerging wrestling legend, was standing
before 12,000 Cyclones basketball fans last Thursday night at
Hilton Coliseum. Seventeenth-ranked Iowa State was in the
process of blowing out Baylor, but the fans were on their feet
at halftime to salute Sanderson, a six-foot, 184-pound wrestler
from Heber City, Utah. Sanderson's coach, Bobby Douglas, was
handing him some kind of plaque, and high above them the Diamond
Vision scoreboard was showing a highlight clip of Sanderson
while the public address announcer recited what everybody
already knew, Sanderson's record: 105 wins, no losses.
Nobody has won that many straight, not even Dan Gable, the Iowa
State wrestling icon who competed 30 years ago. Gable won 100
consecutive matches and then lost the final match of his
collegiate career. Sanderson has known nothing but victory. He
waved to the crowd, shoved his bony hands sheepishly into his
pants pockets and thought, When will this be over?
His mind was where it always is during the wrestling season: on
his next match. In 24 hours he would be back at Hilton, facing
Oklahoma State senior Daniel Cormier in a Big 12 dual match.
Sanderson, who is 21, was not relishing the prospect. Cormier is
one of the few collegiate wrestlers with the strength, speed and
guile to beat him. Someday, Sanderson knows, he will face his own
Larry Owings, the Washington wrestler who defeated Gable in the
142-pound final of the 1970 NCAA finals. "A lot of people in
wrestling probably don't know that name," Sanderson says later.
"I do." His goal is to postpone that day--the day he meets his
Owings--as long as he can.
He doesn't like to think about the streak and talks about it
reluctantly. In the middle of a long, forced soliloquy on his
wrestling philosophy, he pauses and says, "I don't know what I'm
talking about." He tries hard not to take anything too seriously,
himself or others. As a senior at Wasatch High in Heber City, on
national letter-of-intent day, he took a phone call from the
nervous Douglas and said, "Coach, I'm going to Oklahoma State."
(Douglas thought Cael's joke was hilarious.) Sanderson enjoys
bragging about his awesome capacity to drink Mountain Dew. Ten
cans in a night is nothing for him. He dotes lovingly on his pet
snapping turtle, feeding it goldfish regularly, although in two
years he hasn't come up with a name for the thing. He has a wide
mellow streak. It just narrows during wrestling season.
The other day Sanderson and his girlfriend, Kelly Kinnard, a
senior at Iowa State, were sitting in the living room of
Sanderson's off-campus apartment, which is dominated by a wooden
TV case with no TV in it and an unframed color picture of Jesus
Christ. (Sanderson is a semidevout Mormon who believes Jesus
wrestled at 184 pounds but didn't go undefeated.) Kinnard is a
waitress at a Pizza Hut in Ames, and she was telling Sanderson
about a couple who had complained that their pizza was
undercooked, ate it anyway while ordering a second one and ended
up getting both pizzas on the house. "I'm telling him about this
unbelievable situation with the free pizzas, and he's looking
right at me, but he's got this faraway look in his eye," Kinnard
says. "I say, 'Hey, where are you?' And he says, 'Oh, I'm right
here.' But I knew he was thinking about wrestling. He's always
thinking about wrestling. He's got wrestling on the brain."
Art, though, is in his heart. Sanderson is a visual studies major
and is taking fine arts classes for the first time. "I like that
one dude, Seurat," he says. "That other guy, Caravaggio, I like
him a lot, too. I don't know the names of too many artists,
because I don't pay attention in my art history class."
His bedroom doubles as his studio, and on a drafting table is a
copy of a drawing by Gustave Courbet called Les Lutteurs. "It's
French for The Wrestlers," Sanderson says. "I like the picture
because it shows two big strong dudes, battling. You don't know
what they're wrestling for. They might be wrestling for food. I'd
like my art to be timeless like that."
One of his favorite subjects is his coach, whom he describes as
"an old, ornery man." Douglas, 58, is hugely accomplished as a
wrestler and as a coach, and many wrestling people are
intimidated by him. Not Sanderson, who joins Douglas on fishing
and hunting trips with visiting recruits. But no affection comes
through in Sanderson's pencil drawings of his coach, just
respect. In one drawing Douglas is sitting on a folding chair,
perched forward while watching a match, his tie dangling between
his knees, his lined face a study in dissatisfaction. He looks
old and ornery all right.
Douglas has known Sanderson and his parents, Debbie and Steve,
since Cael (pronounced kale) was a little boy winning state
wrestling titles in Utah. Cael is the fourth Sanderson wrestler,
in a line of four brothers and a wrestling dad. The oldest of the
boys is Cody, who wrestled for four years at Iowa State as a
lightweight before graduating last year. He's pursuing a masters
in genetics and serving as a volunteer assistant to Douglas. Next
comes Cole, a senior captain of the Cyclones who's ranked among
the nation's top 10 wrestlers in the 157-pound class. Then comes
Cael, who won NCAA titles as a freshman and a sophomore. Back
home and already a state junior high champion is the fourth
Sanderson child, 14-year-old Cyler (pronounced with a hard C).
Douglas has had an eye on that kid since he was embryonic.
The three older boys were coached by their father at Wasatch
High. Steve, who is now an assistant principal at Timpanogos
High, is old-school. He wrestled at BYU in the 1970s, when
working out in rubber suits and sweatboxes was a cruel ritual for
making weight. As a coach he had his methods. Discipline was at
the core of them. "He'd throw his key ring at us, and you know
schoolteachers: They always have like 80 keys on their ring,"
says Cael, half joking.
Cody and Cole wrestle in the time-honored manner of their father,
cautious and methodical, wearing out opponents. Cael wrestles in
a manner all his own. He's a wild man, wrestling frequently on
his back, which is the ultimate no-no. He moves constantly,
taking fidgety steps one expects to see from a lightweight, not a
184-pounder. "He takes chances; he's on his back a lot more than
I'm comfortable with, but it's working," says Douglas. "Cael is
going to redefine conventional wrestling. He's going places no
big man has been."
Sanderson developed speed as a kid, forever trying to avoid the
attacks of his older brothers, and speed is at the heart of his
style. However, his genius for wrestling comes from someplace
else. "Most wrestlers are very dependent on their coach," says
Cody. "They do exactly what their coach tells them to do. Cael
has taken everything my father and everything coach Douglas has
said, and turned it up a notch."
On Friday, Sanderson was back at Hilton Coliseum, under the
Diamond Vision scoreboard again. This time, though, the
basketball floor was covered by a thick red and orange wrestling
mat. On a viciously cold and windy night 2,500 people had
gathered to see two of the best college wrestling teams in the
country, Oklahoma State, ranked second, and Iowa State, ranked
fourth. And to see Cael.
Cody was in the house, as an assistant coach. Cole was too,
wrestling at 157 pounds. Douglas was there, sitting in the same
dissatisfied position in which Cael had captured him in pencil.
Cormier of Oklahoma State was there, as the potential spoiler.
Kinnard was there, as the reality check. Gable was there, as a TV
analyst. The match was being broadcast by Iowa Public Television.
Iowans value wrestling.
"I heard Bobby Douglas saying the other day that Cael is like
Superman on the mat and Clark Kent off it," says Gable, now an
assistant athletic director at Iowa. "I laughed because they used
to say the same thing about me a long time ago. My record held up
for 30 years, so it must have been pretty good. I'm glad it was
broken by someone of Cael's caliber. He's impossible not to
like--unless you're his opponent."
The Cormier-Sanderson match was the third of the night, and the
crowd was loud. Cormier tried what every smart wrestler tries
against Sanderson: stall from the start, then stall some more,
trying to keep the scoring low with the hope of getting lucky
late in the third period. It hasn't worked yet. Sanderson won
After the match, Sanderson retired to the plush Iowa State men's
basketball locker room, which the wrestlers were using this
night. In victory he looked dejected and upset. This is typical
of him. In all his wins, now numbering 106, he thinks he executed
well in only two, the NCAA title matches. "I was thinking about
the wrong thing tonight," Sanderson says, his chest heaving as he
sucked air. Suddenly, you couldn't remember anything mellow about
him. "I was thinking about the next match." Sanderson thought he
would face Cormier again in three days, at the All-Star Classic
in Lancaster, Pa.
On Monday in Lancaster, Cormier bowed out, because of the
Saturday air crash that killed 10 people, including two Oklahoma
State basketball players, and Sanderson pinned Shawn Scannell of
Rider in 39 seconds. The streak was up to 107, but Sanderson
wasn't thinking about it. He was thinking about the next guy.
Always, there's a next guy.
One of Cael's favorite subjects is Douglas, but no affection
comes through in his drawings, just respect.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO
GRIPPING PERFORMANCE Sanderson (right) has won 27 times this
season, twice over Cormier.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO