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Sanderson, Cael

Published onJul 30, 2021
Sanderson, Cael

(June 20, 1979 - )

Quick Facts

Olympian Sanderson was Iowa State’s sixth head wrestling coach, building on his own successful career to lead the Cyclones to three straight Big 12 Conference Wrestling team titles.

Source: Iowa State Daily,

Cael Sanderson finished his Iowa State wrestling career as indisputably the greatest collegiate competitor of all time. When he defeated Jon Trenge of Lehigh for the 2002 NCAA 197-pound championship, it was the culmination of a four-year quest for victory that Sanderson completed with a 159-0 record. Sports Illustrated called his four-year streak of perfection the No. 2 most outstanding achievement in collegiate sports history. The win over Trenge to make history was named one of the “25 Defining Moments” of NCAA history for the organization’s centennial celebration. He earned three Dan Hodge Trophies as the nation’s best college wrestler, a collegiate first. Sanderson was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler at all four NCAA Championship meets in which he competed, another unparalleled accomplishment.

Before Sanderson, the idea of completing a four-year career undefeated was almost unthinkable. Through four collegiate seasons (1998-2002), Sanderson never had an off night, compiling records of 39-0, 40-0, 40-0 and 40-0, competing the first three years at 184 pounds. When he won the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award as a freshman at the 1999 NCAA Championships, he was the first freshman ever to claim the honor.

Sanderson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Iowa State in 2002, twice earned NWCA Academic All-America honors, making the first team in 2000 and 2001. He was a two-time first-team all-Big 12 academic honoree.

The summer of 2004 was a magical one for the native of Heber City, Utah. Sanderson won the U.S. Olympic Trials at 84 kilgorams/185 pounds to qualify for the Athens Olympic Games. There he won five matches, defeating Korean Moon Eiu-Jae 3-1 in the gold medal match. Down 1-0, Sanderson scored on a two-point exposure move at the 4:32 mark of the match and sealed the victory with a takedown at the 5:05 mark. Underscoring Iowa State’s international presence, Cyclone head coach and U.S. Olympic coach Bobby Douglas and former ISU All-American and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson, the U.S. National Coach who replaced Sanderson as Iowa State mentor, were in Sanderson’s corner for the historic match.

Sanderson had already fashioned a sterling international resume before the Olympic Games. The 2000 World University champion won three U.S. national freestyle championships and World Team Trials titles from 2001-03. He earned the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award at the 2001 meet, winning the 187.25-pound title. Sanderson was prepared to represent his country at the 2001 World Freestyle Wrestling Championship. When the Sept. 11 tragedies postponed the tournament, Sanderson chose to compete for Iowa State during his final collegiate season. He made the U.S. team again in 2002, but the USA squad stayed home when its safety could not be guaranteed at the world tournament in Iran.

His wrestling triumphs led to an ESPY Award as the Best Male College Athlete, his appearance on a Wheaties Box and being the focus of an ESPN Sports Century episode, Sanderson was named Iowa State’s sixth head wrestling coach on March 31, 2006. He would go on to lead the Cyclones to three straight Big 12 Conference Wrestling team title from 2007-2009. Sanderson’s first Cyclone team finished second at the 2007 NCAA Championships as Trent Paulson won the 157-pound title. Jake Varner (184) and Kurt Backes (197) finished second. Iowa State finished fifth in 2008 as seven Cyclones earned All-Americans. His 2009 team placed third at the NCAA meet as Varner won the 197-pound title.

Before Sanderson left Iowa State to take the head coaching position at Penn State, he had fashioned a career dual coaching mark of 44-10. His wrestlers won eight individual Big 12 titles.

Selected Sources

NCAA - Sanderson entry:

Cyclones Hall of Fame, Sanderson entry:

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