Sanderson's sterling resume now includes a gold medal

College and high school standout wins 185-pound freestyle honors

Men's Wrestling

Athens 2004

August 29, 2004|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ATHENS - The gold hung near his sternum, tugging at his thick neck. The olive wreath they had awarded Cael Sanderson was too small for his head. This medal, though, seemed to fit perfectly.

"I see the medal," said Sanderson, but, "it's hard to believe it's over and things turned out the way they did."

Hard for Sanderson to believe - not for others.

Sanderson, 25, cemented his place as one of the best American wrestlers ever last night, coming from behind to win an Olympic gold. Sanderson defeated South Korea's Moon Eui Jae in the 185-pound freestyle wrestling division.

"This whole thing is unreal," Sanderson said after his 3-1 win. "Every moment, it's hard to believe I'm actually here."

Sanderson was a favorite for gold. He is the only American wrestler to have won gold in Athens.

Two other Americans - Stephen Abas (121 pounds) and Jamill Kelly (145 pounds) - lost in their gold-medal matches last night. Americans Joe Williams and Daniel Cormier still have a shot in today's final day of action.

With the retirement of Rulon Gardner, the Greco-Roman star who won a bronze here, wrestling is looking for a new face. Sanderson has the credentials but said he isn't sure whether he'll continue to compete.

"Seeing him win the gold is excellent for the sport of wrestling, excellent for USA wrestling," said Kelly, his teammate.

Despite Sanderson's reserved and shy demeanor, he was already one of the country's most accomplished wrestlers. He won four high school titles, then four college titles. He finished his career at Iowa State with a 159-0 mark - an NCAA record.

The path to the gold-medal match wasn't easy, and Sanderson had some help along the way. Earlier in the day, Sanderson defeated Cuba's Yoel Romero, a wrestler he had never beaten. That set the stage for a final match between Sanderson and Russia's Sazhid Sazhidov, who beat Sanderson for last year's world championship. But Moon, a silver medalist at the 2000 Games, upset Sazhidov in the semis.

Against Sanderson, Moon scored the first point on an escape.

"I knew I had to get something going or it was going to slip away," Sanderson said.

Sanderson attacked Moon's legs for an apparent takedown. No points were immediately rewarded, but officials reviewed videotape and gave Sanderson two points for back exposure.

In the final minute, Sanderson scored his final point with a single-leg takedown.

"I didn't wrestle perfect," Sanderson said. "I made mistakes and gave up some points."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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