15 years ago: Cael concludes perfect college career

Cael Sanderson gets his hand raised after winning his fourth NCAA title and finishing undefeated

Fifteen years ago this month, Cael Sanderson made history by winning his fourth NCAA Division I wrestling championship, and concluding his collegiate career at Iowa State with a perfect 159-0 record.

Sanderson became only the second D1 wrestler to have claimed four national titles, with Pat Smith of Oklahoma State being the first, having done it at the 1990-92 and 1994 NCAAs. (In subsequent years, the NCAA Division I four-timer's club has grown to include Cornel's Kyle Dake and Ohio State's Logan Stieber.) And while some other wrestlers compiled perfect records in college (for example, Oklahoma's Dan Hodge went 46-0 in the mid-1950s), Sanderson holds the national collegiate record for the most wins.

At this 15th anniversary of Sanderson earning a place in the wrestling history books, InterMat thought it would be the right time to take a look back at 2002 -- Cael's Most Excellent Year -- and the history leading up to that historic year.

The 411 on Cael Sanderson

Cael Norman Sanderson was born on June 20, 1979 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the third son of Steve and Debbie Sanderson. Sanderson attended Wasatch High School in Heber City, Utah where he was coached by his father. While at Wasatch, Sanderson earned four Utah state wrestling titles from 1994-97, compiling a prep record of 127-3.

After graduating high school, Sanderson headed east to Iowa State University in Ames, where he wrestled for legendary head coach Bobby Douglas. While with the Cyclones, Sanderson not only won four national titles (1999-2002) and did it with a flawless 159-0 record, he also was a four-time NWCA All-Star champion, and four-time Big 12 conference champ. For those accomplishments, Sanderson was named Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAAs four times ... and was presented with the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's best college wrestler an unprecedented three years in a row. If that weren't enough, he earned a degree in Art & Design, with a (at the time) stated career goal of possibly becoming an illustrator or cartoonist.

Cael Sanderson battles Oklahoma's Josh Lambrecht

Cael's college career highlights

In his first season wrestling varsity for Iowa State (1998-1999), Sanderson compiled a 39-0 record. At the 1999 Big 12 championships in his home gym -- Hilton Coliseum -- Sanderson won his first conference crown, defeating Nebraska's Brad Vering, 9-5, in the 184-pound finals. A couple weeks later, at the 1999 NCAA championships at Penn State, Sanderson, the top seed at 184, beat No. 2 seed Brandon Eggum of the University of Minnesota, 6-1, in the title match. (Eggum is now head coach at his college alma mater.)

As a sophomore during the 1999-2000 season, Sanderson went 40-0. He claimed his second Big 12 title at 184 at the University of Nebraska, getting an 8-4 victory over Oklahoma State's Daniel Cormier in the finals. (Cormier later qualified for two U.S. Olympic teams, and is now UFC light-heavyweight champ.) At the 2000 NCAAs in St. Louis, No. 1 seed Sanderson got a convincing 19-6 win over Vertus Jones of West Virginia University, the second seed, in the 184 title match.

Junior year, Sanderson continued his winning ways, again putting together a 40-0 record for 2000-2001. At the 2001 Big 12 championships at Oklahoma State, Sanderson met a familiar foe in the finals -- Daniel Cormier -- with a similar outcome: an 8-3 win for his third conference title. At the 2001 NCAAs hosted by the University of Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena -- the last time the NCAAs would be held on a college campus, the top-seeded Cyclone phenom met the third-seeded Cormier yet again, this time getting an 8-4 win, and his third national title.

"107-0 and Counting" -- Cael inside SI

It was in his junior year that Cael Sanderson was subject of a Sports Illustrated feature in the magazine's Feb. 5, 2001 issue titled "107-0 And Counting: A two-time NCAA champ with an artistic bent, Cael Sanderson of Iowa State has created a record of unprecedented perfection."

Michael Bamberger opened his profile of Sanderson with an explanation of that headline, mentioning another legendary Cyclone mat champ: "Nobody has won that many straight, not even Dan Gable, the Iowa State wrestling icon who competed 30 years ago. Gable won 100 consecutive matches and then lost the final match of his collegiate career. Sanderson has known nothing but victory."

Bamberger continued, "Someday, Sanderson knows, he will face his own Larry Owings, the (University of) Washington wrestler who defeated Gable in the 142-pound final of the 1970 NCAA finals. 'A lot of people in wrestling probably don't know that name,' Sanderson says later. 'I do.' His goal is to postpone that day--the day he meets his Owings--as long as he can."

"107 and Counting" goes on to describe the Sanderson wrestling family -- father/coach Steve, Cael's older brothers Cody and Cole, and younger brother Cyler, with a compare-and-contrast analysis of the siblings. "Cody and Cole wrestle in the time-honored manner of their father, cautious and methodical, wearing out opponents. Cael wrestles in a manner all his own. He's a wild man, wrestling frequently on his back, which is the ultimate no-no. He moves constantly, taking fidgety steps one expects to see from a lightweight, not a 184-pounder. 'He takes chances; he's on his back a lot more than I'm comfortable with, but it's working,' says (Iowa State head wrestling coach Bobby) Douglas. 'Cael is going to redefine conventional wrestling. He's going places no big man has been.'"

"Sanderson developed speed as a kid, forever trying to avoid the attacks of his older brothers, and speed is at the heart of his style," Bamberger continued. "However, his genius for wrestling comes from someplace else. 'Most wrestlers are very dependent on their coach,' says Cody. 'They do exactly what their coach tells them to do. Cael has taken everything my father and everything coach Douglas has said, and turned it up a notch.'"

Sanderson's senior season

During the 2001-2002 season -- his fourth and final season wearing the cardinal and gold of Iowa State -- Cael Sanderson moved up to 197 pounds.

One neat nod to Cyclone mat greats of the past: Instead of wearing typical warm-ups before and after stepping onto the mat, Sanderson appeared throughout the season wrapped in a retro-looking terrycloth robe, much like those worn by past Iowa State wrestling champs of the 1950s and 60s , including Dan Gable, Les Anderson, Ron Gray, Larry Hayes, Tom Peckham, Veryl Long, Jason Smith, Ben Peterson, and Chris Taylor, to name a few.

Moving up a weight class -- and all the media attention focused on Sanderson's final season as a wrestler in Ames -- did not sidetrack Cael's quest for perfection, as he managed to put another 40-0 season in the record books.

At the 2002 Big 12 championships at the University of Oklahoma, Sanderson got a 19-4 win over Missouri's Scott Barker in the 197 finals. Two weeks later, Cael, his Iowa State teammates, and coach Douglas headed east to Albany, N.Y., site of the 2002 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

As in the three Nationals prior to the 2002 NCAAs, Sanderson was again the top seed in the 33-man bracket. In the opening-round match, Cael pinned unseeded Clarion wrestler Eric Mausser at 3:32. Later that day, the unbeaten Cyclone scored another fall, this time against unseeded Kyle Cerminara of Buffalo, at 6:33.

At the quarterfinals on Day Two of the 2002 NCAAs, Sanderson went up against No. 8 seed Jason Payne of the University of Northern Iowa, getting a 23-8 technical fall. In the semifinals, it was Cyclone vs. Buckeye, with Sanderson defeating Ohio State's fourth-seeded Nick Preston, 18-7.

On Day Three, the 197 finals came down to a match-up between the top two seeds: top-ranked Sanderson facing off against second-seed Jon Trenge of Lehigh. For those fearing that Trenge might play the role of Larry Owings to Sanderson's Dan Gable and wreck a perfect collegiate career record, history did not repeat itself. Sanderson defeated the goggles-wearing grappler, 12-4, to conclude his Iowa State mat career with his fourth national title and flawless 159-0 record. (Trenge went on to become a three-time NCAA All-American and the subject of an excellent documentary titled "Veritas" (Latin for "truth"). He is now a science teacher and assistant wrestling coach at his high school alma mater in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.)

The Sanderson-Trenge title bout made a bit of history beyond the historical aspects of Cael's perfect record and four championships. The 197 finals was shown live on ESPN, interrupting regularly-scheduled programming. This was back when the NCAA finals were shown on a tape-delay basis, usually in the wee small hours of the night, a day or two after the actual event. Today's live coverage of "every mat, every match" for the entire three-day Nationals was still a dream 15 years ago.

The Sports Illustrated cover snub ...

Cael Norman Sanderson's four titles and159-0 record were incredible accomplishments that earned him a place on the shelves of grocery stores in the form of Wheaties cereal boxes and cans of Chunky Soup at regional supermarket chain Hy-Vee.

Sanderson's feat was covered in the April 1, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated. In an article titled, "Perfect! Iowa State senior Cael Sanderson closed out his sensational career with a sterling 159-0 record and his fourth NCAA title," Mark Bechtel provided a recap of the perfect Cyclone's achievements in Albany ... along with a couple quotes that demonstrated Sanderson's dry wit. Two examples: " Leaving Des Moines, I knew it was going to be a long weekend when I saw coach Bobby Douglas in the bar at the airport" and "The hardest part of about going undefeated is winning all your matches."

OK, Sanderson made the INSIDE of Sports Illustrated after concluding his flawless college mat career. What about a place on the COVER of the national sports magazine? Wrestling fans were confident that Sanderson would be featured on the SI cover immediately after that history-making conclusion to his collegiate career. However, SI editors had different ideas, instead selecting that tragic death of a young girl who was hit by a puck while sitting in the stands watching a professional hockey game as the cover story for the issue immediately after the conclusion of the 2002 NCAAs.

Thanks to that editorial decision to keep Cael off the SI cover, University of Oklahoma's Dan Hodge remains the only amateur wrestler to have appeared on a cover of Sports Illustrated as an amateur wrestler, in the April 1, 1957 issue. (InterMat plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of that milestone cover story honoring Hodge as he completed his perfect 46-0 collegiate record and three NCAA titles -- back when freshmen could not wrestle at the Nationals -- in a future feature story.)

College wrestling fans did not take kindly to SI's snub of Cael Sanderson's groundbreaking, mind-blowing feat. They cried foul, and gave SI an earful. The editors tried to make amends by featuring a photo of a mock-up of an "All Hail Cael!" SI cover inside a subsequent issue.

... and subsequent attempts to make amends ...

In April 2002, SI offered another, more substantial peace offering by declaring Sanderson's perfect collegiate record to be the second-greatest achievement in college sports history, surpassed only by Ohio State track star Jesse Owens setting four world records in just 45 minutes at the 1935 Big Ten championships. (Here's what SI wrote: "Not only did Sanderson go 159-0 and win four national titles, but he was also named outstanding wrestler at the NCAA championships four times. During his senior season only four of his 40 matches lasted the full seven minutes.")

... including Sanderson's swimsuit edition

In addition to the aforementioned coverage in the flagship edition of Sports Illustrated in 2002, Cael Sanderson received an entire page of, um, exposure, in the subsequent swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated for Women after his senior season.

To our knowledge, Sanderson became the only amateur wrestler to appear in SI for Women's swimsuit issue. Then again, that may not be saying much, as the every-two-months magazine was published for less than three years (1999-2002).

Most readers are undoubtedly familiar with the iconic swimsuit issue of the flagship Sports Illustrated magazine. It's been an annual staple of the publication since its debut as a five-page photo-feature inside a regular issue in February 1964. Originally presented to the public as an opportunity to take snowbound readers to exotic beach locations and show pretty models wearing the latest in swimwear, the annual issue was timed to fill a gap when not much was going on in sports, following on the heels of football season, and before the start of major league basebal's spring training and other warm-weather sports. The SI swimsuit issue is traditionally the magazine's biggest-selling issue the entire year, and has catapulted the careers of a number of supermodels, including Christie Brinkley, Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks.

Not to be outdone, Sports Illustrated for Women also produced a swimsuit edition during its short life. However, instead of featuring male models, the "hunks in trunks" were amateur and professional athletes such as surfer Laird Hamilton and boxer Roy Jones, Jr. And, instead of being photographed on sandy beaches in faraway tropical locations, many of the sports stars were shot in the places where they worked. In Sanderson's case, that meant the Iowa State wrestling room at Lied Recreation Center.

In the photo featured in the 2002 SI for Women swimsuit edition, Sanderson is showcased in a nearly full-page, full-color photo. (The only other thing on the page: a description of who he is, and about the photo shoot.) The Cyclone mat great is shown bare-chested, wearing knee-length silver-gray trunks from Oakley.

The text alongside the photo provides readers with some very basic info on Sanderson's wrestling career ... along with the inside scoop on the photo shoot itself.

"I really don't think I have that nice a body," Sanderson told SI for Women. "I've always had a belly and the long, skinny arms my dad gave me."

The text went on to state, "Sanderson is so modest that his coach Bobby Douglas who helped set up the shoot didn't tell him he'd be posing for our swimsuit issue. 'When (the stylist) pulled out the bathing suits, I didn't know what to think,' said Sanderson. 'I mean, I don't walk around without my shirt off and I'm the last one to take my shirt off outside. It's got to be real hot.'"

When asked what his wife Kelly thought of the SI for Women swimsuit photo-shoot, Sanderson said, "She was a bit uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as I was."

In the 15 years since Cael's Most Excellent Year ...

In the years since 2002, Cael Sanderson has achieved much in his personal and professional life. He married the former Kelly Kinnard, a fellow Iowa State student, in 2002 ... and together they have two sons: Tate and Teag.

At the conclusion of his college wrestling career, Sanderson racked up a number of significant honors. He received his third Dan Hodge trophy, presented each year to the nation's top collegiate wrestler, becoming the first multi-time winner of this prestigious honor often referred to as "the Heisman of wrestling." What's more, his final NCAA win was named one of the 25 "Defining Moments" by the NCAA. Beyond wrestling, Sanderson was the winner of the ESPY Award for "Best Male College Athlete," and a 2002 finalist for the James E. Sullivan Award, presented to the nation's top amateur athlete.

Sanderson did not step off the wrestling mat completely, focusing on freestyle. Among his post-college career wrestling highlights: two-time Titan Games participant ... 2003 World Championships silver medalist ... and gold medal winner at the 2004 Athens. Olympics.

In 2004, Sanderson launched his wrestling coaching career, first as an assistant at Iowa State ... then was promoted to associate head coach. In 2007, Sanderson was named head coach of the Cyclone wrestling program. In his first season at the helm, Sanderson led Iowa State to a second-place finish at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, and was named National Coach of the Year. In his three seasons as Cyclone head coach, his wrestlers won three Big 12 Conference team titles.

In April 2009, Sanderson stunned the college wrestling world by accepting the head coaching position at Penn State, effective with the 2009-2010 season. In his second year, he led the Nittany Lions to the 2010-11 Big Ten Championship -- the program's first team title in that conference -- and the 2011 NCAA Championship, the first national team crown for the program since 1953.

Since arriving in Happy Valley, Sanderson has led Penn State to a total of five NCAA team titles, including four consecutive championships from 2011-2014 ... and a fifth in 2016. The Nittany Lions enter this year's NCAAs ranked No. 1 by InterMat.

What does the future hold for the 38-year-old Sanderson? Undoubtedly more Big Ten and NCAA team titles for Penn State ... and more personal honors and awards, too. Perhaps he'll even make his way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated someday.


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Matt112 (2) about 6 years ago
NCAA Finals Results:

1999: Beats Eggum 6-1
2000: Beats Vertus Jones 19-6
2001: Beats Cormier 8-4
2002: Beats Trenge 12-4

Again, like the last comment, Cael was awesome!
donski2323 (2) about 6 years ago
Still have my cereal box :) Greatest college wrestler of all time. Dake's 4x at 4 different weigh classes obv amazing. Of the 4x winners I put Cale #1 cause he was a scoring machine. Just incredible non stop scoring. Then Steiber for the same reason. Then Dake. Jmo.
ellascott (1) about 6 years ago
Was hoping this would be mentioned in the article but what is the closest Cael came to losing in college? Either by final score or situation in a match? Was he ever put on his back for points?
gustavus_adolphus97 (1) about 6 years ago
A 4-3 decision over a very talented Minnesota freshman Damian Hahn was his closest, wish they wrestled more often.
IsabellaButts (1) about 3 years ago
This, of course, is the legendary athlete. How did he manage to study at all. I worked a lot during college and therefore didn’t have time to study completely, so I used to help me write my papers. I had to buy dissertation online to finish my it on time, since I worked a lot. How did he even manage to study and engage in serious sport. What a legend.
steve213 (1) about 11 months ago
Super fun article to read about his journey. I am always so inspired by the athletes around the world because of their personality and dedication they show to their work. I am always a big fan of Usain Bolt; one of the greatest sprinter. I read it somewhere that he practiced over 10+ years to become the fastest athlete in the world, and he ran only 50+ seconds in his entire career. I love how the writer wrote the 107-0 and Counting -- Cael inside SI - and how he created a record of unprecedented perfection. It describes the pure dedication to his work. I recently had the opportunity to work with the mobile app development company ( for my athletics clothes brand, it was super fun to work with the company who is specialized in that domain.