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No Looking Back: Penn State Wrestling Coach Cael Sanderson Is Focused On What’s Next For His Sport

By David Seigerman | Oct. 27, 2020, 12:16 p.m. (ET)

UFC light heavyweight fighter Phil Davis (3rd L) poses with Penn State coach Quentin Wright (L), head coach Cael Sanderson (2nd L) and coach Jake Varner on Nov. 7, 2013 in State College, Penn. 

 

Cael Sanderson’s place in the history of American wrestling is indelible: unbeaten in 159 career matches at Iowa State, four NCAA titles, four NCAA Most Outstanding Wrestler awards and a gold medal at the Olympic Games Athens 2004, not to mention the eight national championships he’s won in the last nine seasons as head coach at Penn State.

But as far as Sanderson is concerned, records and resumes are relics. His focus these days is fixed on the future of wrestling, from the uncertain near term of another college season in limbo to the tenuous status of the already-rescheduled Tokyo Games to the long-term growth and survival of the sport that he’s given so much to already.

“Wrestling has been a very critical part of my life. I don’t know if any sport teaches you the life lessons that wrestling teaches you.” said Sanderson, who has coached 25 national champions and 73 All-Americans in his 14 years as a college coach, including three at Iowa State. “It is my responsibility, as a former college wrestler and a former Olympian and now as a college coach, to make sure that the same opportunities are available for kids in the future.”

Sanderson isn’t merely offering up some theoretical pay-it-forward platitude. He recognizes the approaching existential crossroads that wrestling faces — and that Olympic sports on all college campuses face. More than 80 Division I college programs, including the wrestling team and 10 others at Stanford alone, have been eliminated since the coronavirus pandemic shut down first the NCAA winter championships and then the entire spring sports season. 

“We’re at the point we’ve been talking about for years and years. We need to come up with a new model or keep watching Olympic sports disappear. And that’s not really an option, at least in my mind,” said Sanderson. “We have to be creative, and we all have to work together — that includes the USOC and the governing bodies of each sport.”

Perhaps he is uniquely positioned to help reverse the disturbing trends of budget cuts and program attrition. After all, long-range goal-setting is a Sanderson signature move. 

He arrived at Iowa State in 1997 as a four-time high school state champion from Utah with the Olympics already in his sights — not just becoming an Olympian but winning Olympic gold. Still, he was coachable enough to embrace some early advice from his coach, Bobby Douglas.

“I was young for my class, and I was physically immature when I showed up,” Sanderson said. “Coach told me, ‘If you do 50 pull-ups every day, you’ll be an Olympic champion.’ So, I did 50 pull-ups, every day. Sometimes, it took me a lot of sets to get to 50. I was this blue-chip recruit, but strength was not one of my assets.”

Until he turned it into one.

Cael Sanderson competes against Semen Senenok of Belgium during the Titan Games at San Jose State on Feb. 15, 2003 in San Jose, Calif. 

In a way, that’s the challenge he faces again today: How do you take something that already displays tremendous promise and make it even stronger?

For wrestling, and presumably other Olympic sports as well, the first step seems pretty straightforward to Sanderson. He is working to create the opportunity for the wrestling community to fully engage with their favorite sport and for general sports fans to see what they’ve been missing. 

“The media has changed. The access we have today is very different than it was five years ago, 10 years ago,” said Sanderson, who knows how easy it can be to overlook opportunities even if they’re right in front of you. He grew up 30 minutes from BYU and yet only went to watch a couple of matches — and he was a devoted wrestler, coached in high school by his father. “People can watch you wrestle on their phone as they’re walking in the park. We have to figure out ways to monetize that. If you want these programs to be available in the future, you have to support it.”

That’s essentially what Sanderson is striving to do with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club — a perfect example of how collegiate and Olympic wrestling are working together to boost the health of their shared ecosystem. Penn State has been designated by USA Wrestling as a U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center, a program designed to provide additional opportunities for athletes at all levels of the sport but whose primary mission is dedicated to the development of the next generation of Olympic-hopeful wrestlers. 

Recently, the NLWC streamed a live event that featured some of the sport’s rising stars, among them several wrestlers currently on Penn State’s roster, including two-time All-American Nick Lee and Aaron Brooks, who won the Big Ten title at 184 pounds last spring as a true freshman. The revenue generated by the subscriptions required to watch the event was nearly as important as the attention and awareness it created for wrestling’s next generation.

“This is a new concept for us, and we need to do something unique,” Sanderson said. “We believe we have great assets in our Olympic sports. There is interest, there is value. We just need to prove it.”

At a time when every sport at every level is being forced to examine every aspect of its existence, the future of wrestling is being forged, in no small part, by the greatest champion from its past.

David Seigerman

David Seigerman is a veteran sportswriter, producer, author and the producer/writer/host of the new sports podcast, Out Of Left Field. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.