To appreciate what Cael Sanderson did last Saturday, when the Iowa State senior became the first college wrestler to finish his career undefeated (159-0) and win four national titles, you have to understand how hard it is for a wrestler to be perfect. One fluke move, one slip, can cost him a match. Oklahoma State's Pat Smith, the sport's only other four-time champion, lost five times during his career in the early 1990s. Dan Gable, the country's most eminent grappler, won his first 100 matches at Iowa State before losing his last, to Larry Owings in 1970, on a blunder in the final minute.
"The hardest part about going undefeated is winning all your matches," Sanderson joked after taking a 12-4 decision over sophomore Jon Trenge of Lehigh in the final of the 197-pound class at the NCAA championships in Albany, N.Y. The statement got a few chuckles, but you had to wonder if it was even true. What could be harder than coping with the pressure of staying undefeated, of doing something not even Gable—who at the 1972 Olympics did not give up a single point to any opponent—could? That pressure lived with Sanderson so long that it should have been paying him rent. The attention the streak brought him was unprecedented for a college wrestler. He was even followed around all season by a documentary crew from Iowa Public Television.
All of that came to a head in Albany, where the streak was certain to end, one way or another. En route to the tournament Sanderson was thinking not about the historical significance of what he was on the verge of accomplishing but about how many people were going to want to ask him about it. "Leaving Des Moines, I knew it was going to be a long weekend when I saw [coach Bobby Douglas] at the bar in the airport," says Sanderson.
"In this kind of situation the person who can beat Cael is Cael," Oklahoma coach Jack Spates said the day before the tournament began. "And that's kind of what happened with Dan Gable. There was so much media hyping it, and he was caught up in it through no choice of his own, because Gable was not one to embrace the media. But the tension got to him. The pressure got to him. And that, with the combination of wrestling a great opponent, resulted in probably the greatest upset of all time."
It was hard to tell if the hubbub had any effect on Sanderson, 22, who grew up in Heber City, Utah, as the third of four wrestling brothers and is tougher to read than a faded copy of Finnegans Wake. His answers to the press were short, polite and often prefaced with an apology for not being able to better express his feelings. ("I wish I were a little better at speaking," he said after the tide match. "I can't really describe my emotions.") Many wrestlers get ready for a match by having a member of their coaching staff slap them silly, as Jack Nicholson did to Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Sanderson's prematch routine in Albany involved giving Douglas the kind of dispassionate handshake normally seen at the conclusion of an aluminum-siding transaction.
But Sanderson's stoicism has served him well, and it's hard to argue with success. He qualified for the U.S. national team last summer but gave up his spot when the world championships were pushed back from September to November due to the Sept. 11 attacks; he didn't want the competition to interfere with his commitment to the Cyclones. (Brandon Eggum, who took his place on the U.S. team, won a silver at the worlds, so Sanderson could easily have been the reigning world champ.) During his senior season 34 of his 40 matches ended in either a pin or a technical fall, which occurs when a wrestler builds a 15-point lead. The closest he came all season to losing was a 6-1 win over Trenge in January.
You have to go back a ways to find a match that Sanderson lost, but you don't have to look far to find the guy who beat him. Joe Heskett, a teammate at Iowa State, defeated him at the University Nationals during their freshman year when they were sitting out as redshirts and wrestling unattached. (The pair also split two matches in high school.) But that was four years and about 30 pounds ago. While Heskett has remained roughly the same weight-he won the national championship at 165 pounds on Saturday—Sanderson has bulked up. He wrestled at 184 pounds in his first three years at Iowa State before moving up to 197 this season. The added heft and strength didn't come at the expense of speed and quickness, as was evident from Sanderson's lightning-strike takedowns. "Cael has grown to an immense size, but he's the quickest wrestler in the business," says Heskett. "It gives him a lot of latitude, and he's able to do some great things because of his size, speed and smartness."
Sanderson's smarts aren't confined to wrestling. He completed his degree in art and design in December 2000, and some of his sketches—especially those of Douglas—are quite good. His artistic talent is the cornerstone of a theory that Trenge, who went the distance with Sanderson three times this season, has developed. "Ever read about Musashi?" Trenge asks by way of launching into said theory. "He was a 17th-century samurai warrior who said that if you want to be a good warrior, you have to study something else, like art. He studied painting and felt that that made him well-rounded and able to understand things better. Sanderson's a caricaturist, so maybe he can visualize things in his head. To draw things well, you have to be able to visualize, and that's a big part of wrestling. You have to picture where things are going to be next, before they happen. I think that helps him get those shots [for takedowns] in."
Musashi, who also went through his career undefeated, felt compelled to give something back to his sport, as it were, so he hung up his two swords at age 59, decamped to a cave for two years and wrote a treatise on battle strategy called A Book of Five Rings, a dog-eared copy of which is now in Trenge's possession. Sanderson, who hopes the five Olympic rings are in his future, has already done plenty for his sport. At a time when college wrestling programs are regularly being cut, Sanderson's run has given the sport some much-needed exposure. "This is a defining moment in [college] wrestling," says Douglas. "Wrestling has been the invisible sport, and Cael has lit a fire with his performance that will perhaps keep it alive."
Maybe that's why no one was rooting against Sanderson. The wrestling championships took place at the same time as the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments, in which everyone loves Cinderella. But in Albany it was all about Goliath. The crowds gave Sanderson raucous receptions while virtually ignoring his opponents. And the guys who had vied to be his Larry Owings harbored no resentment. "Dude, he's awesome," said Trenge the night before the final. "I give him all the props in the world."