Simply the best

Zac Reicks

ALBANY, N.Y. – Seven minutes.

That was all the time required for Cael Sanderson to rewrite 74 years of history at the Division I NCAA Wrestling Championships and become the first collegiate wrestler to complete his career both undefeated (159-0) and with four straight national titles.

The top-ranked 197 pound ISU senior defeated second-ranked Jon Trenge from Lehigh University with a convincing 12-4 major decision that brought the sellout crowd of more than 13,000 to their feet for a 10-minute standing ovation.

Entering the arena floor, Sanderson cleared the red curtain standing between himself and NCAA history and trotted to the center of the mat like he had 158 times before.

Twice in NCAA tournament history, Iowa State has featured wrestlers riding lengthy winning streaks only to see them overtaken by both pressure and determined opponents.

Dan Gable, who witnessed Sanderson’s record breaking night, saw his 117-match winning streak and undefeated career come to an end at the hands of sophomore Larry Owings of Washington in 1970.

Nine years later, Iowa State’s former career wins leader Mike Land saw his 84-match winning streak and bid for his second national title disappear as he lost to Lehigh freshmen Darryl Burley.

If that wasn’t enough pressure, a win was needed by Sanderson in order for Iowa State to vault past Oklahoma and claim second place in the team standings.

Sanderson responded with a typical dominating performance as he turned a first period single leg into a double leg takedown, and then put Trenge on his back to take an early 5-0 lead, one which he would never relinquish.

Sanderson went through the entire tournament without being taken down. The only time he gave up points was when he was letting opponents up just to take them down again.

Throughout the entire tournament, Sanderson dealt with the constant media pressure.

He dealt with it as usual, shying away from the attention to focus on wrestling to his best ability.

“That’s what I was fighting, the fear that I wouldn’t perform up to my capability,” Sanderson said. “One hundred and however many matches is a lot of matches to be ready for.”

Sanderson got himself ready for 159 matches by working harder and preparing better than anyone else in the country.

First time NCAA champion and teammate Aaron Holker witnessed just how much work Sanderson put in this season as he tried to keep his record unblemished.

“He’s always working hard, using two or three workout partners in practice,” Holker said. “I can’t do that and he does it everyday. He’s the only wrestler that when he’s tired will still wrestle at the same pace.”

He is also the only wrestler to be named Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA Tournament four years in row.

Adding that to a list of achievements that few wrestlers can even dream about, Sanderson’s accomplishments have attracted attention from coaches, fans, and celebrities as well.

Actor Stephen Baldwin made the trip to Albany, N.Y. and watched history made in a sport that he competed in during his high school years.

Understanding just how much hard work and determination is required to succeed in wrestling, Baldwin had nothing but the utmost respect for Sanderson and his accomplishments.

“To see a guy like Cael continue to be as humble and be such a wonderful example to so many kids who aren’t aware of the sport is great,” Baldwin said. “Cael Sanderson is obviously a very dedicated, disciplined, and smart wrestler. He’s talented and blessed and I wish him all the best in the future.”

When celebrities like Baldwin were done lauding Sanderson’s greatness, it was the fans turn to give their due to the greatest college wrestler of all time.

Darrell Staley was a member of the 1959 ISU wrestling squad and is proud of the fact that Sanderson represents the Cyclones in such a dignified manner.

“I think Cael is a fantastic individual and fantastic wrestler. He is a fine gentleman with high morals and I don’t think you could find a nicer individual,” Staley said. “He is going to be one of the best wrestlers to ever step on the mat.”

Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith was the only other collegiate wrestler to win four NCAA Championships and as far as Staley is concerned, “he [Smith] doesn’t hold a candlestick to Sanderson.”

ISU head coach Bobby Douglas witnessed each of Smith’s four championships and realized just how much more Sanderson’s accomplishment meant to wrestling.

“I think this is a defining moment in wrestling,” Douglas said. “I don’t really think we truly realize what this accomplishment means. He is a great champion and great ambassador to the sport of wrestling.”

It a sport that has been looking for a candidate for Gable to pass the torch to, and Sanderson came along just in time and will carry wrestling into the 21st century.

“Its big for both ISU and wrestling. You couldn’t have a better ambassador,” ISU assistant coach Chris Bono said. “We need to get him out there promoting our sport.”

To promote a sport one needs to attract fans. According to Sanderson, he has done that by trying to make his matches as exciting as possible.

Rarely showing emotion, fans sometimes think that he is too stoic, too serious about his sport. All that changed as he ascended the stairs to the raised mat and prepared for the start of his final match.

“I can’t really describe my emotions. The finals – walking out there it was hard. I looked up at the ISU fans and almost started crying. So I looked away and just kind of tried to keep things in perspective.”

Buffalo University’s Kyle Cerminara became victim number 156 in the second round of this year’s tournament.

Pinned in 6:33, Buffalo’s 197 pound freshman best summed up what more than 13,000 fans saw on Saturday.

“It seems like no matter what you do he is never flustered,” Cerminara said. “In my opinion, he is the perfect wrestler.”

One would have to agree.