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The Life

July 17, 2002
Wrestling The Bear
ESPN The Magazine

Pellets of rain machine-gunned the windshield of Cael Sanderson's car, and the wind rocked so hard that the most fearless wrestler in the world actually thought of bagging the trip. Sanderson had no qualms about convincing three friends, including his fiancée, Kelly Kinnard, to chase tornadoes across central Iowa. But then his car radio reported a twister had touched down and was burrowing north on Highway 30. Just over the next hill, the ash-colored soil of central Iowa was being thrown into the sky.

He'd always wanted to see a tornado up close; to feel his hair stand on end, like those home videographers in all of his weather videos. Most of all, he had wanted to step into what storm-chasers reverently call the Bear's Cage -- the most dangerous area around a tornado, where drinking straws and playing cards become deadly, wind-whipped weapons. In the cage, The Bear is close enough to run you down and rip you to pieces.

Kelly and the two friends were scared but didn't say a word. They trusted Cael. Everybody who knows him does. And why not? Nobody controls a situation -- even one involving a potential killer storm -- like Sanderson. He's the guy who never lost a match -- never lost a match! -- in four years of collegiate wrestling. When he ran to his car to trail a tornado, they followed. If Cael thought it was safe, it must be safe.

Only he didn't. The windshield wipers couldn't keep up with the pelting rain, so he slowed the car to 35 mph, then to 25. His neck hairs stood at attention -- it was either the storm's electricity or his own fear telling him to stay away from The Bear. Yes, he had come to see a tornado and chase it through Iowa's cornfields, but this was no longer some couch-docked fantasy.

"I'm not going over that hill," Sanderson said. Nobody argued.


Cael Sanderson sorts through his fan mail and bills in the 90-year-old farm house he's staying at with his brother Cody and Cody's wife, Sarah. He hasn't been in Ames for a week and the mail has stacked up. But one letter, postmarked Washington, D.C., catches his attention. It's a congratulatory note from the president, George W. Bush. The letter closes with the assurance that Mrs. Bush is amazed too at Sanderson's 159–0, four-time NCAA championship career at Iowa State. An argument ensues about the authenticity of the signature.

"Man, the most powerful person in the world knows who you are," Cody says.

"His secretary does, anyway," Cael says.

Maybe Bush's secretary is from Iowa, where 23-year-old Cael Sanderson is the biggest name in wrestling in three decades. He's the first man to be named Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAAs four years running. As a senior, only five of his 40 matches went the distance, and he didn't surrender an offensive point all year -- he was never taken down, never turned on his back. He has his own bobblehead doll, a six-figure shoe deal and his picture on a Wheaties box, which Ames residents waited two hours at a store for him to sign on June 15. One guy lugged in 25 boxes to get autographed.

In the last 20 years, 171 colleges have cut wrestling programs, many to comply with Title IX. The sport has never been more in need of an anvil-jawed superhero. And it hasn't seen anyone like Sanderson since its living legend, Dan Gable, put grappling back on the sports map in the 1970s. Despite the difference in size, Sanderson (197 pounds) can't avoid comparisons to Gable (142). Gable also wrestled at Iowa State. He'd been unrivaled, seemingly unbeatable, winning his first 99 collegiate matches. The only difference is that Gable lost, 13-11, to Oregon State's unheralded Larry Owings at the 1970 NCAAs, his final college match.

A less rugged wrestler than Gable, Sanderson doesn't rely on brute strength. He uses his head and hands, equally quick, to know where his man will go and to get there first. Opponents know he is in their headgear when they see Sanderson's sly grin. And he always seems to smile on the mat. But by his senior year, he wasn't smiling much off it.

Every press conference centered on the same topic. Can you keep the streak alive? What will you do if you lose? Who's your Larry Owings? He'd never been afraid of losing, but the questions quietly preyed on his confidence. He dreaded the attention his streak attracted. At the Big 12 championships, the announcer introduced him as the greatest college wrestler ever to a crowd that included Oklahoma State's Pat Smith, the only other four-time NCAA champ (1990-92, '94), and Dan Hodge, who was 46–0 at Oklahoma in the 1950's. "I don't know why they say crap like that," Sanderson says.

When Iowa Public TV asked to do a documentary on Sanderson, he complied. He hates that junk, too, but he can't say no. "I just feel like I should do all that stuff," Sanderson says. "Sometimes it's not best for me, but I do it anyway." So he spent the last half of the season with a camera crew in his face. At the NCAAs, he'd duck away, hiding in tunnels and locker rooms to be by himself.

Sanderson cruised through the NCAAs, and as his hand was raised after a 12–4 mauling of Lehigh's Jon Trenge -- by far the second-best man at 197 -- Sanderson's mouth bled, his lips pursed in a look of resignation. At what should have been the happiest moment of his life, the final step of a four-year climb up Mount Gable, Sanderson was more relieved than triumphant.

At his press conference following that final match, Sanderson was asked once again about the streak. He paused for a moment before giving the perfect answer to the question he'd been asked a thousand times. "The hardest part about going undefeated is ... winning all my matches," Sanderson deadpanned. The room grew uncomfortably silent. Sanderson smirked, then added, "Uh, I was joking."

It's no surprise that the keypunchers on press row don't get Cael Sanderson. Not many people do. He's nearly as polite as he is private. An art and design major, Sanderson allows few to glimpse his sketch books filled with tornadoes and wrestlers. He wistfully dreams of moving to Alaska and penning a comic strip. When left to choose his pre-match intro music, he once provided a tape of Cher's dance hit "Believe" that was quickly replaced with blaring electric guitars by the image-conscious Iowa State athletic department. "I don't care what they say," Sanderson says. "That's a great song." And he's been known to hop in his Camry and make a solo, 2,200-mile round trip to Heber City, Utah, just to spend a day at home.

Back among his family of wrestlers (all four Sanderson boys followed their father and grandfather onto the mat) is about the only place Cael can go where he isn't reminded of his pursuit of Gable. No one there will remind him that Gable stormed through the 1972 Olympics without surrendering a single point. Or that he went on to coach at cross-state rival Iowa, whipped them into shape and won 15 national titles in 21 seasons. Or that five years after retiring from coaching, he remains a force in the Hawkeye State. So much so that the Iowa GOP convinced Gable, a Democrat, to switch parties and nearly talked him into taking on the governor, Tom Vilsack, in this year's election.

That's why, as he flips through a book about Alaska at his brother's place in Ames, every picture he sees seems cooler than the last. He likes the loping grizzly but then turns to a whale puncturing the glass ceiling of a cellophane-clear lake. That one's even better. Then he sees a barren, snow-draped mountain and he really can't decide. Someday, he says, he may just buy an RV, drive to Alaska and pan for gold, maybe catch a few turtles. "Everything looks so simple there," he says. "The idea of not having to worry about anything but a tick crawling behind your ear. I like that. It's relaxing."

He'd just as soon jump down and walk -- no, run -- away from the pedestal he's been on, the one that has made every sap with a singlet to lick his chops at the thought of being the next Larry Owings. But Sanderson's near future is mapped out. Before the 2004 Olympics, he'll be the favorite if the U.S. takes a team to the World Championships in Iran this fall. Of course, first there was the formality of making the squad at the U.S. team trials in St. Paul on June 23. That's where Sanderson faced Lee Fullhart, a 26-year-old, internationally tested wrestler, in a best-of-three wrestle-off.

In the opening match, Sanderson scored two takedowns and allowed an escape to lead 2-1 with 20 seconds left. Freestyle wrestling rules require three points for a win; instead of low scoring snoozers, the rule can force sudden-death overtime even if one man's ahead. On a restart in the middle of the mat, Fullhart went for Sanderson's legs. Caught off-guard, thinking Fullhart would settle for OT, Sanderson stumbled back and desperately locked on one of Fullhart's ankles. As Fullhart pushed for the tying one-point takedown, Sanderson hung on too long. His back touched for just a second, but that was enough. Fullhart got a two-point exposure as the buzzer sounded. Sanderson had lost, 3-2.

As the crowd roared for Fullhart, Sanderson grabbed his warmups and ducked out of the rear of Roy Wilkins Auditorium. It was 11 a.m., but Cael seemed to be sleepwalking as he and Cody trudged a mile back to their hotel, talking little. Cael had never needed extra motivation before stepping into the circle, but back in their room, Cody cornered his little brother and reminded him in measured tones what their dad still tells them before matches. "You came here to fight," he said. "Now go fight." A lethargic Cael nodded his head, a look of detachment still glazed on his face, and said, "I want to take a nap."

As Sanderson stared at the ceiling, he couldn't sleep. "I just laid there," he says. "I thought about losing. How much I hate it. I didn't plan on going undefeated my whole life, but I hated that feeling."

As Sanderson walked back to the gym a few hours later, he still wasn't sure if he had it in him. The man who never lost was lost. The Bear Cage was wide open. He knew Fullhart, a brawling former NCAA champ from Iowa, would get after him -- slap his face, snap his head, crunch his fingers. To win, Sanderson needed that fire again. He needed to become the force of nature that makes even Gable shake his head. "He doesn't just win," says Gable, now retired. "He dominates. Flat-out dominates."

Sanderson strapped on his headgear and warmed up on the floor. His heart rate climbed, sweat beaded on his head; the fire was kindled. That perfect time of his life, when he couldn't fail, was over. Forget 159–0. He was 0–1. He had a new start.

Sanderson mangled Fullhart from the beginning of the second match. Whacked his head, snagged his ankle and toppled him to the ground -- once, then twice, then four more times -- before the ref told Sanderson that the six minutes were up, that he had to stop. The scoreboard said he won, 7-1.

Sanderson barely made it through the one-hour break. Cody made him drink some water and sit down for a minute, but Cael stood up and jogged in a corner. His blood was boiling, and he wanted to keep it at a slow simmer. A trainer gave him a quick massage to keep him loose, and then it was time.

Back on the mat, Sanderson remained a scoring machine, never letting Fullhart do anything but backpedal and counter. He was explosive, aggressive, relentless. He was Cael Sanderson. By the end, the score was 6-1, and Sanderson was his country's 84kg representative at the World Championships.

Sanderson's burden wasn't having to live up to Dan Gable. Just as Gable's burden was never Hodge or any of the great wrestlers before him. No, their common motivator was the very thought of losing.


The sky, as black as asphalt, still swirled, and there was no sound, inside or outside of the Camry as it wobbled on the side of the road. "I want to keep going," Cael Sanderson told his fiancée and two buddies. Nobody argued.

Sanderson pulled back onto the puddled road and inched to the hill's summit. There stood The Bear, a contorting bustle of debris tearing through the Iowa farmland. The tornado moved off to the right and whirled away. Sanderson's car was safely behind it, so he trailed the twister for 10 miles. Finally, losing sight of the storm, Sanderson headed back home.

He had wrestled The Bear.

This article appears in the July 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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