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Sanderson finishes Olympics undefeated

8/29/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Cael Sanderson has fulfilled all of his
promise, met all of the expectations. The best wrestler in U.S.
college history is now the best in the world, too.

A winner since first pulling on a singlet for his father-coach
in Heber City, Utah, Sanderson beat South Korea's Moon Eui-jae 3-1
Saturday in the Olympic 185-pound freestyle finals to cap his
unequaled career.

Four-time high school champion. Four-time NCAA champion at Iowa
State. Now the world champion. Sanderson has long been held to a
higher standard than any other active U.S. wrestler, and he has
never disappointed.

He wasn't about to disappoint now, either, not in the biggest
match of his life on the world's biggest stage. He came through,
just like he always has, after two surprising American finalists,
Stephen Abas and Jamill Kelly, lost their gold-medal matches.

Down 1-0 early in the second period after Moon slipped a clinch,
Sanderson became more aggressive and rolled Moon for a two-point
back exposure, then tripped him with a single-leg takedown in the
final minutes for his final point. He had to rally in two of his
final three Olympics matches.

"I didn't wrestle perfect, I made mistakes and gave up some
points," Sanderson said. "But I was able to score and get wins."

Doesn't he always? Just to get to the gold-medal match,
Sanderson beat Cuba's Yoel Romero -- a wrestler he had never beaten
-- 3-2 in the semifinals earlier in the day. Then Moon upset
Russia's Sazhid Sazhidov, who had narrowly beaten Sanderson in last
year's world finals.

"You can say all you want about talent, but the reason Cael
Sanderson is an Olympic champion is he has the heart of a
champion," said Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas, who was in
Sanderson's corner. "His college career was great, but that can't
compare to this. This was the greatest moment of his life."

And right at that moment, he didn't exactly know what to do.
Sanderson, 25, has never been truly comfortable with the attention
focused on him, the Wheaties boxes and magazine covers, so he
certainly didn't have a celebration scripted.

He waved to the crowd, including wife Kelly and father Steve,
and displayed the flag, but that was about it for a guy who has
made no plans except to go back home and get a milk shake at the
Dairy Queen.

"I had to get out of there before I made a fool of myself,"
Sanderson said.

Not likely. As good as he was in college -- he was 159-0 -- he has
improved since ending his Iowa State career two years ago. He is as
quick as ever -- Douglas calls him the fastest big man in U.S.
wrestling history -- and is becoming ever wiser in the often
peculiar ways of international wrestling.

"The whole thing is unreal," Sanderson said. "At this very
moment, it's hard to believe it's here. I've spent so long thinking
about it."

It's also hard to believe he almost didn't make the Olympic
team. He lost his U.S. title to former Iowa wrestler Lee Fullhart
in April, then needed three close and difficult matches to win his
spot back from Fullhart at the Olympic trials in May. None of the
other six freestyle team members came so close to losing their
spot.

Now, he finds himself on the short list of the all-time best
U.S. wrestlers.

While excellence has long been projected for Sanderson, it
certainly wasn't for Kelly -- perhaps the most overachieving U.S.
wrestling silver medalist ever.

He never won a California high school title or made All-American
at Oklahoma State, but won three straight Olympic matches before
losing to two-time world champion Elbrus Tedeyev of Ukraine 5-1 at
145½ pounds (66kg).

"I got a little timid," Kelly said.

Kelly nearly lost in the semifinals -- the referee was about to
raise the hand of Russia's Makhach Murtazaliev -- before Kelly was
awarded two points via video replay and a 3-1 overtime decision.

Abas, a three-time NCAA champion at Fresno State, was older (26)
than 121-pounds finalist Mavlet Batirov (20) of Russia and more
experienced internationally, but it hardly mattered in Batirov's
9-1 victory.

Batirov was wrestling in juniors two years ago and was just 14th
in last year's world championships, but won his five Olympic
matches by a combined score of 43-3.

Also Saturday, Americans Daniel Cormier (211½ pounds, 96kg) and
Joe Williams (163 pounds, 74kg) powered through two pool round
matches to advance, but Eric Guerrero (132 pounds, 60kg) lost twice
and was eliminated.