1 of 5
Jason Olson, Deseret News
Cael Sanderson works with young athletes at his wrestling camp.

HEBER CITY — After a lifetime of wrestling mats, Cael Sanderson was ready for a change of scenery.

He had, after all, accomplished nearly everything possible as a wrestler, including an unprecedented, undefeated college career and an Olympic gold medal.

So the 29-year-old Heber City native moved from the center of the mat to the sideline.

In his second year as the head wrestling coach at Iowa State, regarded as one of the country's premier wrestling programs, Sanderson said he has not yet had enough of the sport that catapulted him to fame and the record books.

"I love wrestling," he said during a recent trip to Utah in which he held a weeklong wrestling camp. "I love coaching it. It's a big part of my family, and I've spent a lot of time doing it. It's what we talk about."

Sanderson's life was filled with wrestling from a young age, as his two older brothers wrestled, and his father was their coach.

"They spent a lot of time at it," said his dad, Steve Sanderson, who coaches wrestling at Wasatch High School. "They loved it."

Like most little boys, Cael played a variety of sports, including baseball, soccer and football.

"He was very good at all the games he played," said Steve. Steve admits he had no idea just how legendary Cael's career would be, but there were signs that he wasn't just an average wrestler.

"By his third or fourth year, I could see he was considerably better than most people his age," Steve said.

Still, 159-0, an experienced coach knows, is more than a long shot.

"When we sent him off to college, we were just hoping he'd be competitive," Steve said. "It was surreal. You know people get hurt; they have a bad day. Somehow he got past all of that."

The expectations for Cael grew with every collegiate victory.

"The first two years we were nervous all the time because kids were in more of a position to beat him," Steve said. "They were older, more experienced. The strange thing is, he'd destroy those kids."

Cael Sanderson said he simply set out to do his best every day.

"There were difficult times, but I had a very solid base of people around me," he said. "Focus on effort. Focus on little things. Focus on being your best. If you start worrying about the distractions, and there can be a lot of distractions ... that's when you get into trouble."

While an undefeated college career was unexpected , winning an Olympic gold medal was the essence of his boyhood dreams.

"Winning a gold medal was something I always wanted," Cael said. "It's something I always expected to do. ... Going undefeated wasn't a goal of mine until I got into college."

The two accomplishments, he said, are very difficult to compare.

"The (undefeated) college experience was special because no one else has that. That's pretty cool. My final match, I felt great excitement. Afterward, I just felt a real peaceful feeling."

A lifetime of anticipation meant a little more elation.

"I was pumped up," he said. "I'd worked hard; a lot of people put in a lot of time to help me actually reach this goal."

It may seem Sanderson has little left to prove on a wrestling mat, but halfway through college, he said he began to contemplate coaching.

"This is what I do well," he said of wrestling. "I had coaches who showed me I could reach my goals. My success is a tribute to my parents and coaches who helped me to believe I could reach my goals. They taught me to be the best I can be, whatever that is. Attack life and wrestling. Never be satisfied with where you're at."

His goal now is more for others than for himself, including his 21-year-old brother Cyler, who will be a junior at Iowa State this year.

"Now as a coach, my goal is just to help Iowa State win a team championship," he said, noting that's something the Cyclones haven't done in about 20 years. "When I was on the team, we finished second twice, fourth and sixth."

The pressure that comes from guiding one of the premier wrestling programs is much different than the mental challenges he faced as an athlete.

"I made that adjustment from competing to coaching," said Sanderson. "They are two separate deals altogether. They're both a great challenge."

The aspect of wrestling that Sanderson loves — the individuality — is also what makes teaching and coaching so challenging.

"Everyone on your team has a different style," he said.

As a coach, he now looks for athletes who have the kind of support and teachers that he had.

"I look for kids whose parents expect a lot out of them," he said, "in the right way. They hold their kids accountable, don't make excuses. That's about the only kid you can't help is a kid who won't take responsibility for himself."

He said he loves returning to Utah because it's home and he believes the state boasts some of the most talented wrestlers in the country. He hopes to see wrestling programs stabilize after years of being cut by different universities. He points out that some are even adding wrestling back into the college experience, as Utah Valley University has. More collegiate opportunities mean stronger youth programs, and Sanderson knows first-hand what wrestling can do for a person.

"I'll put my kid in wrestling not because I want him to do the things I've done," he said of his son, Tate, who is 17 months old, "but because I'm confident it will teach him a lot of great things."

Interestingly, it isn't the perfection that Sanderson cherishes but the fact that he had the chance to see what he was capable of accomplishing.

"I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had," he said. "I think about that all the time. I'm not so much grateful for what I've been able to accomplish but for the opportunity to do it."


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com