Cael Sanderson’s first international wrestling tournament since his gold-medal performance at the 2004 Olympics showed a few things remain the same: even at 32 he’s still one of the top wrestlers in the world, and that the always tough-to-interpret rules of overseas wrestling are still difficult to deal with.
The head coach of the 2011 NCAA champion Penn State Nittany Lions won four of six matches in Istanbul, Turkey, and finished fifth at 185 pounds in freestyle at the World Championships.
In international competition there is no seeding. All wrestlers are drawn into a bracket, meaning a first-round bout could include the top wrestlers at a weight class. Lose once and you are done, unless the wrestler who defeats you reaches the final.
After an easy first-round win, Sanderson dropped a 4-1, 3-1 match to Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan. When Sharifov won three more matches to reach the final, the former four-time NCAA champion was drawn back into what is called the Repechage bracket. It includes all those wrestlers who have lost to the two finalists.
With three wins, Sanderson reached one of the two bronze medal matches. However, a defensive-minded Albert Satirov of Russia was able to score a two-period victory that was not without controversy.
“It was a little rough, but I got what I deserved,” Sanderson admitted.
Points appeared to be scored by Sanderson at the end of the second period which would have forced a decisive third period but officials, as is often the case in international competition, interpreted things differently.
The soft-spoken Sanderson would not place blame on officials when assessing his performance.
“With those clinches, when you go to the clinch it’s a coin toss so I don’t have anything to complain about there, you just need to get the job done before that,” Sanderson said. “But I’m glad I went through this process. Luckily, I guess the one thing is that the weight is qualified. It’s not what you come to the World Championships for, to qualify a weight class. I was a little hit-and-miss, sloppy and not finishing shots, sprawling and they are going to catch you at the top level.”
When the process of returning to the mat started perhaps in the winter of 2010, Sanderson admitted to having his sights set on the 2012 Olympics in London. He turns 33 just after the 2012 Olympic Trials.
“I’m not sure,” Sanderson said of continuing the quest. “With this performance, I want to go climb in a hole somewhere. Going through this experience will definitely help me be a better coach, get a better feel for this system.
“I don’t know. If I can’t get out there and make it happen, I don’t want to take that spot.”
Seven weight classes in men’s freestyle were contested during the three days in Istanbul. The Americans crowned their first world champion since 2006 with a victory by Jordan Burroughs, who capped his collegiate career last March with a second NCAA title for Nebraska. Burroughs won the 163-pound title.
Another American, Jake Varner, battled his way to a bronze medal at 211.5 pounds after losing in the second round.
A coach, who can portray a father figure in the life of a young athlete, cannot help but get emotional when one of his pupils achieves success. For Sanderson, that pupil was Varner, a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State who followed Sanderson to the campus of Penn State after his collegiate career ended in 2010.
Sanderson coached Varner at ISU for three seasons before taking his current position at PSU.
“I’m very happy for Jake, that is awesome, I’m really happy for him,” Sanderson said. “That’s the first of many for him, that’s for sure. He’s the man.”
Nick Simmons, a graduate of Michigan State, was fifth at 121 pounds and Tervel Dlagnev, a former Division II star for Nebraska-Kearney, was also fifth at 264 pounds.
The United States coach, Zeke Jones, summed up what having Sanderson on the 2011 team meant.
“Cael is the leader of the program,” Jones said after the tournament. “He is the guy, when he moves, he does something, the team follows. He’s a great coach but a better athlete. He is all the things you would ask for when you are trying to put a team together. He follows the plan, he’s committed to his training, committed to the team and you can’t ask for a greater guy.
“It’s not going to be long, if he chooses it, he can stand on the top of that podium again. When you take that kind of layoff, it takes some time to get back.”
Sanderson will now turn his attention to the Nittany Lions, who open the 2011-12 campaign on Nov. 13 against Bloomsburg in University Park, Pa.
As for the 2012 Olympics? Stay tuned.