Cael Sanderson still has a lot to get used to in the world of
international freestyle wrestling. The scoring. The tactics. The
postmatch kiss from Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero of
Cuba. "He does that to everybody," said Sanderson after Romero
planted a sweaty Valentine's Day buss on his cheek at the end
of their 185 1/2-pound match in the inaugural Titan Games, at
San Jose State's Event Center last Friday night. "There's not
much you can do except stand there." ¬∂ More difficult to
endure, perhaps, will be the occasional loss--something
Sanderson never experienced in his storied career at Iowa
State, which he completed last March with an unprecedented
159--0 record. After leading Romero 2--1 at the end of
regulation (at least three points are required for a win),
Sanderson lost in overtime when Romero scored the tying point
off a clinch and followed that with a one-point takedown for
the win. As the irrepressible Cuban held his arms aloft, the
crowd of 3,000 released its collective breath, unsure whether
or not to be shocked.
"No one goes undefeated in freestyle," said U.S. national team
coach Kevin Jackson afterward, and, in fact, Sanderson was beaten
last June during the World Team trials. "Better to lose now than
in the final of the world championships. Cael will be seeing
Romero many more times."
Romero said after the match that he had known virtually nothing
about Sanderson before arriving in San Jose. That will come as a
shock to Iowans, who did their darndest to make Sanderson the
most celebrated college wrestler since Dan Gable. In the 11
months since winning his fourth NCAA title, Sanderson has had his
picture taken with President Bush on two occasions, had his image
plastered on the Wheaties box (the first collegiate wrestler ever
so honored) and led the singing of Take Me Out to the Ball Game
at a Chicago Cubs game, a particularly courageous move for a guy
who neither sings nor likes the spotlight. "It didn't sound as if
I'd practiced, but I actually had," says Sanderson.
He still serves as an ambassador for the sport and for Iowa
State--only now he gets paid for it. "My title is Special
Assistant to the Athletic Director, but I don't have any
particular responsibilities," says Sanderson. "That's kind of
nice." Little has changed in his approach to wrestling. He still
works out with the team when he is in Ames, and he still wears
out a parade of Cyclones before he even starts breathing hard.
Sanderson spends about a week each month at the Olympic Training
Center in Colorado Springs. Even there, going against the top
wrestlers in the country, he doesn't wear out easily. "His lung
capacity is bigger than [that of] anyone I've ever seen," says
Jackson. "I've never seen him exhausted. At his age  and
where he's at in his career, that's really unusual."
Among other attributes that give Sanderson an advantage in
international competition are great speed, an unorthodox,
aggressive style and unusual technical ability for a wrestler his
size. "He's one of a kind," says Jackson. "The closest person you
could probably compare him with in terms of motion and leg
attacks is John Smith [who won four world titles and two Olympic
gold medals at 136 1/2 pounds between 1987 and '92 and is
considered the greatest U.S. freestyle wrestler in history]. In
Cael's weight class you just don't see those types of technical
Sanderson has had to adjust to the change from college to
freestyle--a discipline that puts greater emphasis on wrestling
while standing up--and has had to wait longer than expected to
test himself against the rest of the world. He won the U.S.
freestyle championships and qualified for the worlds in 2001, but
he decided to skip the event after the Sept. 11 attacks forced
its postponement until November, the start of his final college
season. He won the nationals and made the U.S. team again last
year, but U.S. Wrestling's executive committee decided not to
send the squad to the worlds in Tehran in September after a U.S.
State Department official warned at the last minute that the team
might be a target for terrorists.
"That was such a frustrating and helpless feeling, to get to the
point of leaving and then be told it wasn't happening," says
Sanderson. "The world championships and the Olympics are what you
spend all your time working for; everything else is just
As practice, Sanderson could hardly have asked more of the Titan
Games, a three-day, 14-nation event created by the USOC to help
fill the competition void left when the unwieldy Olympic
Festivals ended in 1995. The eight sports showcased in San Jose
in a kind of three-ring-circus format (as many as four sports
were contested at the same time at the Event Center) were boxing,
fencing, judo, karate, shot put, taekwondo, weightlifting and
wrestling. The Titan Games may turn out to be the one shining
moment this winter for the USOC, which is under congressional
scrutiny for possible ethics violations and poor management.
Though the games are projected to lose about $125,000 (they will
be broadcast March 29--30 on ESPN), the event was a good idea
that was well executed and enthusiastically received by
spectators, sponsors and athletes alike.
Even in defeat Sanderson stayed positive. Though his match was
not the international debut he had hoped for, it was a good
introduction to one of the two men most likely to battle him for
gold medals at the worlds in New York City this September and at
the Olympics in Athens next year. (The other top wrestler in
Sanderson's weight class, reigning Olympic and world champion
Adam Saitiev of Russia, didn't make it to San Jose because of
visa problems.) "I'm not worried about the loss," Sanderson said.
"This was a good match for me. I need to learn from this and
wrestle him smarter next time. This is just the beginning of our
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY HOLD ON THERE Unimpressed by Sanderson's 159--0 college record, Cuba's Romero (in red) edged him in overtime.