Cael Sanderson Took a Seven-Year Break from Competition? Doesn’t Look Like It

June 13, 2011 at 11:53 am Leave a comment

This USA Wrestling photo pretty much sums up Sanderson's finals match against Jake Herbert.

So it turns out that Cael Sanderson was a little bored. That’s all. Maybe you’d think coaching Penn State’s wrestling team to its first NCAA title since 1953 is time-consuming enough. Well, Sanderson was sitting around last summer after the world championships and wondering whether he was making the most productive use of his time.

He decided he wasn’t. So he returned to elite competition Saturday after a seven-year layoff and won a berth on the U.S. freestyle team for the world championships this September in Istanbul. And, really, “returned” isn’t quite the right verb. He dominated the field, easily dispatching the defending world silver medalist, Jake Herbert, in the best-of-three finals. (Watch here to see how easy Sanderson made it look.)

“There is plenty of time in the day to add a little bit more, and I really thought hard about it,” Sanderson said after the match. (Interview video here; like the previous link, this comes from the fun guys at FloWrestling.)

“My job right now is coaching the Penn State wrestling team, and that is my top priority next to God and my family. I could go home at the end of the day and try and master Call of Duty, or be a little more focused and try and wrestle.”

Let’s put aside the image of Sanderson competing at video games and be specific about what “be a little more focused” really means.

Sanderson decided to compete at his old weight, 185 pounds, to avoid Jake Varner, a former Iowa State wrestler who’s now training with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and who was a favorite at 211 pounds, the weight at which Sanderson competed at a regional tournament in April that was “just for fun,” he insisted. That means he had to drop 26 pounds.

Since Sanderson had won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the freestyle rules had changed. Each match still has three periods, but when Sanderson last competed, the score was cumulative. Now each period is scored separately, and a wrestler needs to win two out of the three to win the match. (For example: A wrestler could crush his opponent 5-0 in the first period, but lose the match if that opponent won the second period 2-1 and the third period 1-0.) What all that means is that Sanderson had to adjust his strategy.

And then he had to beef up his training to the elite level. Sanderson has always drilled with his wrestlers, but that’s not the same as preparing yourself to compete against the world’s best.

Sanderson became the third wrestler to qualify for a world or Olympic team while serving as a head coach at the collegiate level. Oklahoma State legend John Smith was a co-coach at his alma mater when he won gold at the 1992 Olympics, and heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner won two Olympic medals (gold in 1992, silver in 1996) and three world championship medals (gold in 1993 and 1995, silver in 1994) while he was head coach at Edinboro.

Sanderson, 31, could still break new ground. Neither Smith nor Baumgartner coached a team to the NCAA title and won a world title in the same year.

As far as the 2012 Olympic Games in London? Sanderson’s gotta be the favorite. As one of the commentators on said as the final seconds of the second Sanderson-Herbert bout ticked away, “Training for the Olympics just got that much harder.”

Lori Shontz, senior editor

P.S. Keep an eye on the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, which had a great performance at the World Team Trials. It qualified 11 wrestlers, and joining Sanderson on the U.S. team in Istanbul will be Varner, the winner at 211 pounds, and Teyon Ware, the champ at 145.5. Two other members will represent Puerto Rico at worlds.


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