Ricardo Mazalan, Associated Press
Heber City's Cael Sanderson, right, wrestles Moon Eui Jae of Korea during the men's freestyle 84kg wrestling final at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens on Saturday.

ATHENS — Utah's Cael Sanderson, who never lost in college, became the 2004 Olympic freestyle wrestling champion in the middleweight (185 pound) division Saturday night by not losing at the Olympics, either. He won five straight matches over a two-day period, including a 3-1 verdict over Eui Jae Moon to clinch the gold medal Saturday night in the Ano Liossia Olympic Hall.

That's the easy summation. On the mat, it wasn't that breezy.

Sanderson, 25, went through his first Olympic tournament more like Indiana Jones than the untouchable man. Only one match — a 9-1 dismantling of Siarhei Borchanka of Bulgaria — qualified as a blowout. In none of his other matches did he win by more than two points and in his last three matches he had to come from behind to win.

And yet, he had an uncanny ability to stay calm in the face of so much uncertainty. "I was having fun, even when I was behind," he said. "I think that helped. I was able to keep a clear mind and focus."

In the gold-medal match, he trailed Moon 1-0 at the 3:07 mark after the Korean was awarded a point for winning a clinch hold. Wrestling defensively, Moon succeeded in staying away from Sanderson's offensive attempts for almost a minute and a half. But at 4:32, Sanderson was finally able to strike and land a hold on the Korean's legs and roll him over, securing a two-point takedown.

Even that scoring, however, came with suspense. Although the referee signalled points for Sanderson, the move was so quick that the judges stopped the match to review the videotape before putting the points on the scoreboard.

Needing three points for a win in regulation, Sanderson got the match-clincher with a one-point facedown takedown with 50 seconds remaining.

After that, Sanderson successfully kept Moon at bay, although Moon made an aggressive move that nearly turned Sanderson over with 15 seconds to go.

"Man, I was just thankful he didn't get me," said Sanderson. "He was real strong and real smart and wrestled a good match."

Moon won a silver medal at 76 kilograms (167 pounds) in the Sydney Olympics. He was pinned in that tournament by Alexander Leipold in the semifinals and wrestled in the bronze medal match, where he defeated Adam Bereket of Turkey. But three weeks after the Olympics, Leipold tested positive for anabolic steroids and his gold medal was taken away. Moon moved up to silver and Brandon Slay of the United States — who lost to Leipold in the gold-medal match — got the gold.

Four years older than Sanderson and a veteran of international freestyle competition since 1998 — when Sanderson was in his first year of college at Iowa State — Moon had a definite experience edge. At that, he was an unexpected foe in the final after upsetting Russian Sazhid Sazhidov in the semifinals with a 10-2 trouncing.

Sazhidov, the 2003 world champion when he defeated Sanderson in New York City, had sailed through the tournament until he ran into Moon, winning a preliminary match against Senegal's Matar Sene by a 17-0 verdict after Sazhidov declined accepting the right to take the win when he went ahead 10-0.

The good news for Sanderson, after he defeated previous nemesis Yoel Romero of Cuba in the semifinals, was that he didn't have to face Sazhidov.

The bad news was that he had to face the man who beat Sazhidov 10-2.

Romero, the middleweight silver medalist in Sydney, had defeated Sanderson by a single point in each of their two previous meetings. In their semifinal meeting Saturday morning, Romero went up 1-0 at the 1:16 mark of the first period. Sanderson evened the score just before intermission at 2:56 and then, at 3:45 went up 2-1. He got the third point, and the win, at 4:21.

In the bronze medal match between Romero and Sazhidov — a match most people felt would be for the gold — Sazhidov prevailed, 5-3.

"This is the toughest tournament in the world," exulted Sanderson after his victory. "It feels good. It was hard. I didn't wrestle perfect, but a win's a win, and I'll take this one."

At Wasatch High School in Heber City, Sanderson lost just three times, once as a sophomore and twice as a junior, while winning four straight Utah high school championships. At Iowa State, he won four consecutive NCAA championships while winning an unprecedented 159 straight matches.

The Utah native, who was born in Salt Lake City, becomes only the third Utah-born athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. The others are Alma Richards, who won the high jump at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, and Natalie Williams, who was on the winning U.S. women's basketball team in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics.


E-mail: lbenson@desnews.com