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�-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 tides and two Olympic gold medals at 136� 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 skills."
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 practice."
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.