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First in the Nation
It was a warm summer evening at the annual “Meet the Coaches Night” in Des Moines, and there stood ISU’s second-year head wrestling coach, his square jaw softened with a smile and a nametag plastered to his muscular chest. “Cael Sanderson,” read the label on the man after whom people’s children are named. A humble nametag on the man who needs no introduction: Those in attendance had to chuckle at the sight of it.
Once you’ve been on a box of Wheaties, you’re probably past the point of needing a nametag. But Sanderson doesn’t expect people to recognize him. And even though they do, he doesn’t expect people to shriek or bow down or ask for his autograph or ask to see his Olympic gold medal and fawn over his unprecedented achievements.
He just expects success.
Now that the only undefeated four-time NCAA champion and 2004 Olympic champion has accomplished what Sports Illustrated dubbed the second-greatest collegiate athletics achievement of all time, Sanderson’s got a new goal.
“I think he is supremely focused on doing the things that have to be done to make Iowa State a national championship program,” says ISU’s director of athletics communications Tom Kroeschell, who has worked closely with Sanderson since the Heber City, Utah, native arrived on campus a decade ago. “I don’t think he’s distracted by other outside things very much.”
Sanderson’s carried that focus, which led him to unparalleled success as a student-athlete, into his coaching career – a career he admits he didn’t always see in his future.
“My dad was always trying to push [my brothers and me] to be something like a doctor that would make some money,” he says. “He was a wrestling coach and a teacher; I saw the time he put into it, and that’s what he always reminded us of. But coming through college, after things were going really well, I just decided that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know anything better than I knew wrestling, and nothing was more exciting to me.”
Observers of college wrestling and of Sanderson’s career say it would have been a blow to the sport had Sanderson (’01 art and design) not chosen to pursue his current line of work.
“Any sport could use someone like Cael Sanderson,” Kroeschell says. “His overall personality makes him a phenomenal representative. But the number one reason he is an ambassador for the sport is that he’s done something no one else has ever done. There are lots of nice guys out there. But this is a nice guy who won 159 matches in college and then went and won an Olympic gold medal. I think if you’re the best person in your sport in terms of athletic achievement, you are an ambassador for your sport. People are going to look to you no matter what kind of person you are, so wrestling is fortunate to have someone like Cael as its standard-bearer.”
“Wrestling needs the Cael Sandersons,” says J.R. Ogden, a Cedar Rapids Gazette editor who has been covering the sport for 30 years. “It’s important to keep up the publicity for the sport.”
But what about Sanderson’s endearing humility – his selfless nature that made him one of the most likeable student-athletes in the country but at the same time made him a less-than-thrilling interview? Ogden, who has interviewed Sanderson as both a wrestler and a coach, says “it’s night and day.”
“Cael’s always been successful and always was willing to talk to [reporters]; that hasn’t changed. It’s just that now he gives better answers. He got thrust into a situation where he’s kind of shy, but now he knows the attention’s got to be on him. I think he’s handled it exactly how he thought he should.”
“I think it was just a matter of focus, and once he committed to college coaching, in a lot of ways it was like talking with a different person,” Kroeschell says.
“And I don’t think that this was some miraculous change in him. I think it was simply him changing his focus from Cael Sanderson to the Iowa State wrestling program.”
Sanderson’s brother and associate head coach Cody Sanderson says he knows speaking to the media and self-promoting were things that used to “stress [Cael] out.” But Cody also says he’s seen his brother change since becoming a coach.
“He’s still a little reserved in a way; he never completely reveals himself,” Cody says. “But he knows to be a successful coach he has to approach those situations differently than he did as a student-athlete. He always knew how to coach, knew about technique. He knows the sport. But now he’s really learned how to be a leader, and that’s the big thing about being the head coach. In fact, during the season last year I saw him improve in that regard in every competition.”
And if Cael Sanderson is leading, it’s easy to find followers.
For Kroeschell, the appeal of having Sanderson as a head coach is simple to summarize: “When he says, ‘Listen: If you want to do this, you have to do A, B, and C,’ what wrestler in his right mind would say, ‘Yeah, well what do you know?’”
Sanderson’s worked hard to make that a laughable scenario.
“When I decided I wanted to be a head coach, I knew I wanted to win a gold medal so I could recruit kids who wanted to win gold medals. I wanted to let them know that I had been there and I knew how to
get there,” Sanderson says. “I’ve been there; I know what it takes to win a gold medal. I know what it takes to win a national championship.”
Sanderson also knows not every wrestler will take his same exact path. “We don’t work on ankle picks all day,” he explains, referring to one of his signature moves. “We try and master the fundamentals. We’re looking for kids that have the right attitude, that love to compete, love the sport, and love to train. You need kids that are team-oriented that want to win as badly as a team as they do individually. You just try to help those guys be the best they can be.”
And after a national runner-up finish with six freshmen in the lineup last season, the young Iowa State squad with its young head coach is on everyone’s list of teams to watch.
“We only have one returning All-American, but we have six returning NCAA qualifiers,” Sanderson says. “If
we can stay healthy and have that mentality that we need to continue to progress, I think we can be in a position to contend for that title again. Right now, we’re probably not considered a threat for the title, but we intend to change that before the [NCAA] tournament.
“And we will.”
About the Writer | Kate Bruns is associate editor of VISIONS magazine.