Sanderson's absence opens door for Jake Herbert

Updated: April 19, 2012, 5:39 PM ET
Associated Press

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AP Sports Writer

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The past had threatened to overshadow the future at this year's U.S. Olympic Team Trials, with gold medal-winning wrestlers from each of the past four games planning comeback attempts.

One of those former champions, Cael Sanderson, won't make it to Iowa City. His absence could help open the door for up-and-comer Jake Herbert to showcase his talents in London this summer.

Herbert became the favorite to win the U.S. freestyle spot at 84 kilograms this weekend after Sanderson decided last week that his duties as a father and coach of NCAA champion Penn State were too pressing to leave behind.

It was clearly a break for Herbert, who lost to Sanderson in the World Team Trials in 2011 and was ranked No. 2 behind Sanderson headed into this weekend. But Herbert worked too hard over the past decade to focus on anyone -- even Sanderson -- blocking his path to the London Games.

"I don't really feel one way or the other. If he showed up and I had wrestle and beat him and that's what I had to do to make the team, then it's what I'd do to make the team," Herbert said of Sanderson. "Him not being there is just one less person to worry about."

Herbert's loss to Sanderson last year cost him a shot at his first world title, a rare damper in a career that's usually defied modest expectations.

Herbert didn't dream about the Olympics nearly a decade ago at North Allegheny High outside of Pittsburgh. Herbert just wanted to win a Pennsylvania state title, which he finally did as a senior, and earn a college scholarship.

Herbert signed with Northwestern, a solid program historically toiling in the shadow of powerhouse Iowa, and quickly blossomed into one of the nation's top wrestlers. He won the national championship at 184 pounds in 2007 and 2009, and three years ago he took home the Dan Hodge Award as the country's most dominant wrestler.

Herbert also qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2008 through the redshirt program, where wrestlers take the year off from their college team in an effort to reach the Olympics. Though Herbert impressed, he didn't make the U.S. team.

Herbert's breakthrough came would come a year later, when he unexpectedly won silver at the world championships and realized that London was a lot more realistic that he might have previously imagined.

"I was like...'I've got something going on here.' Instead of getting a job and using my degree and everything I decided to put the next three years of my life into getting ready, training for the Olympics, trying to win world championships and all that stuff in between."

Herbert went on to win three straight U.S. Open titles. But after losing his spot at worlds to Sanderson, Herbert moved to Ann Arbor, Mich. to train at the highly competitive Cliff Keen Wrestling Club.

The environment in Ann Arbor was more geared towards the rigors of international competition that the typical method of working out at one's alma mater. It's proven to be a fruitful plan so far, with all seven club members qualifying for the trials.

"It's just great to have a core group of guys training together," Herbert said. "It's just nice to be a part of something rather than doing it with a college kids who, they're training for the NCAAs and wrestling folkstyle and you're trying to do freestyle and training the beat the Russian."

U.S. freestyle coach Zeke Jones believes Herbert's prospects for national and Olympic success are high after watching him blossom into a seasoned wrestler since his surprise run to silver at worlds in 2009.

"He understands what it takes clearly now. Even coming out of college, you don't know what to expect. He came out of college it probably worked in his favor that he didn't know what to expect. He was second in the world," Jones said.

For Herbert and many of his fellow wrestlers, this weekend in Iowa City is the biggest of their careers so far. But few will have as many supporters in the stands as Herbert, who said his mother Kelly has organized a cheering section of about 50 folks from his native Pittsburgh making the trip west.

They won't get to see Herbert take on the Sanderson, who won gold in Athens in 2004 and later joined Kurt Angle (1996) in cutting their comebacks short.

But Herbert said he's wrestling as well as he ever has and is determined to beat whoever earns the right to share a mat with him in Iowa City.

"I know I'm the best wrestler in the nation at 185 pounds, so I'm just going to go out and show it," Herbert said.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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