ATHENS Heber City's Cael Sanderson punctuated the overtime win that ensured him the opportunity to wrestle for an Olympic medal with a fist-pump followed by an index finger raised toward the fans cheering in the stands.
He was that excited.
After watching what qualified as an epic outpouring of emotion from her normally stoic nephew, Cael's aunt, Sharlene Sanderson, said, "I've never seen him celebrate like that. This is kinda fun. He obviously has a lot of adrenaline."
Sanderson needed all his adrenaline and every bit of wrestling know-how to make it out of the third round of the Olympic wrestling tournament Friday night with the 6-5 overtime victory over Majid Khodaei of Iran that produced all the exuberance. Trailing 5-4 late in the match, Sanderson was 19 seconds from exiting his first Olympics until he managed a one-point takedown at the 5:41 mark of the six-minute match. The resultant 5-5 tie forced sudden-death overtime.
In the extra session, he needed just 14 seconds to score another one-point takedown that eliminated Khodaei from the 84 kilogram (185 pounds) division and sent Sanderson into the semifinals. He joined a final four that includes Sazhid Sazhidov of Russia, Eui Jae Moon of South Korea and Yoel Romero, the Cuban he was to wrestle this morning in the semifinal matches at the Ano Liossia Olympic Hall.
The winner of Sanderson-Romero faces the winner of the Sazhidov-Moon match tonight for the gold and silver medals; losers fight it out for the bronze.
"It was a tough match, the crowd was into it, I was thinking 'I'm having fun' when I was out there, even when I was down," said Sanderson in yet another outburst of emotion in describing the match to the media.
Then he deadpanned, "I think I just used my whole vocabulary."
After spending the first 14 days of the Olympics training and watching almost every other athlete in Athens compete, Sanderson got busy Friday, wrestling three matches in less than eight hours. He started with a 4-2 victory over Magomed Kurugliyev of Kazakhstan, followed that with a 9-1 trouncing of Siarhei Borchanka of Belarus he had a 3-0 lead within 12 seconds and polished off the day by outlasting Khodaei.
Against the Iranian, Sanderson's aggression almost cost him. He was ahead 1-0 two minutes into the match when he executed a roll move on Khodaei that ended with Sanderson on top. In the process, he exposed his shoulders to the mat, however, and the judges scored that as a two-point takedown for Khodaei before giving Sanderson two points for his takedown.
Sanderson glared briefly at the scorer's table. "I mean, it was my roll," he said afterward. "But that's wrestling; I guess it's a tough call."
Being aggressive is Sanderson's style. It's what got him through 159 straight matches wrestling for Iowa State without a loss. But it can also backfire, and Sanderson said he knew he had to be careful against the caliber of competition coming up.
"It's going to be a really tough day tomorrow," he said. "I am 0 and 4 against the two wrestlers I'm expected to face."
That would be Romero and Sazhidov, each with a world championship to his credit (Romero in 1999, Sazhidov in 2003). Both the Russian and the Cuban have 2-0 international marks against Sanderson. All four have been one-point victories.
"I'm expecting them to just wait for me to make mistakes," Sanderson said. "I've got to make real clean shots and work hard on my setups."
Defending world champion Sazhidov's Thursday victories included a 17-0 shellacking of Matar Sene of Senegal. He also beat Nicolae Ghita of Romania 10-2 and Shamil Aliev of Tajikistan 5-0 for a first-day edge of 32-2. Romero went through his bouts in more sedate fashion, defeating Jeffrey Cobb of Guam 4-0, Davyd Bichinashvili of Germany 3-0 and hometown favorite Lazaros Loizidis of Greece 3-1.
Besides his Aunt Sharlene, others from Sanderson's family who have made the trip to Athens include his parents, Steve and Debbie; his wife, Kelly; and his three wrestling brothers, Cole, Cody and Cyler.
"I think my heart about exploded," Steve Sanderson, Cael's father and his first wrestling coach, said of the match with Khodaei. "That was close."