Golden memories: Olympic experiences live on in champions


Iowa State Daily

Cael Sanderson, ISU (197), raises his hand after beating Jon Trenge, Lehigh (197), during the final round of NCAA National Wrestling session held in Albany, New York, Mar. 23, 2002.

Alex Halsted

As the final seconds ticked away, Cael Sanderson smiled, threw his clinched fists into the air and jumped into the arms of Kevin Jackson, his dream complete.

In that moment, Sanderson, who was the only wrestler to go undefeated in NCAA history, had become the fifth ISU wrestling alumnus to win an Olympic gold medal.

Sanderson had won four high school championships in Utah and another four NCAA championships during his time in Ames. But now, he had put himself on top of the world.

“There’s really no feeling like it. It’s been a life-long dream and you get close and you realize it’s going to be a challenge and a lot of guys have the same dream,” Sanderson said of winning the gold medal. “For it to happen is pretty special.”

Building an Olympic legacy

It was 1948 when the first Cyclone wrestler won an Olympic gold medal. That year, in London, Glen Brand stood on top of the podium as an Olympic champion at 24 years old.

It would take another 24 years before another Cyclone would claim gold, but that year — 1972 in Munich, West Germany — two more wrestlers added their names to the exclusive list.

Ben Peterson had just won an NCAA championship at 190 pounds during his senior year as a Cyclone, and at the age of 22 years old he found himself on the top ledge of the podium at the Olympics.

At just 23, the man who had gone 118-1 at Iowa State, with the lone loss in his final collegiate match, Dan Gable dominated his way to the gold medal. Gable did not allow a single point in his six Olympic matches en route to the gold.

With three Olympic gold medalists, Iowa State was leaving its mark in the international world of wrestling.

“I think Iowa State has obviously one of the richest wrestling histories,” said Bobby Douglas, who would become the coach for both Iowa State and the U.S. Olympic freestyle team in 1992. “The history of American wrestling is closely associated with Iowa State.”

Carrying on the Olympic dream

In 1992, Douglas took reign of the U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team, and when he traveled to Barcelona, Spain, ISU alumnus Kevin Jackson was right with him.

Following a fight with a Spaniard earlier in the games and then a controversial call in his final match, Jackson heard boos from the crowd as he earned his gold medal. But what he remembers most, Jackson said, are the chants of “USA!” from the country’s faithful.

Those same chants rang most recent, and for the fifth time for a Cyclone, in 2004. After becoming the first collegiate wrestler to finish a career undefeated with more than 100 matches, Sanderson beat South Korea’s Moon Eui-Jae to capture gold.

Sanderson said there is no greater feat.

“It’s the pinnacle of pinnacles to be an Olympic champion in wrestling just because of how many youth wrestlers there are in the world,” Sanderson said. “And they break it down to seven [weight classes].”

Douglas, who wrestled in the Olympics himself and coached both Jackson and Sanderson to gold medals, said the feeling of the Olympics is equivalent to any person’s greatest memories.

“It’s just like when you’re a kid getting ready for the night before Christmas,” Douglas said. “The first time you can remember Christmas, that’s how it felt for me.”

Lasting memories, gold medal bond

Since 1948, five ISU alumni have won gold medals at the highest level in wrestling and others have competed too.

The winning, and the experiences, will forever connect the gold medalists.

“We’ve walked in each other’s shoes,” Jackson said. “We’ve walked in probably the same steps to a wrestling room [at Iowa State].”

Sanderson said carrying the torch from past Cyclone champions was special and important.

“You’re not trying to do something that hasn’t been done before — I knew there were four other gold medalists that had gone to Iowa State,” Sanderson said. “There is great honor in carrying the flag for your country, but even carrying the flag for your institution and carrying on that legacy is a great thing.”

Jackson said while there is no unique relationship among the gold medal winners, their feats do create some connection.

“Our history is rich knowing that there have been several people that have done it right on Iowa State’s campus,” Jackson said. “I think that’s the connection, that’s the bond.”

When the wrestlers take to the mat this summer in London, another ISU alumnus — four-time NCAA finalist and two-time NCAA champion Jake Varner — will work to become the sixth Cyclone to win gold.

No matter what happens, the memories of winning gold will carry on for those who have achieved it.

“It’s something that lives with me forever,” Jackson said. “I can always find a smile or happiness or enjoyment out of just reminiscing about that moment.”