Perfection. That's the only word that can be used to define Cael Sanderson's collegiate wrestling career.
With a record of 159-0, Sanderson graduated from Iowa State University in 2002 as the most accomplished wrestler in Division I NCAA history. He remains the only Division I athlete to go undefeated for four complete college seasons and one of only four athletes to win four NCAA titles. A 2004 Olympic gold medalist and four-time World Team member, Sanderson rewrote the wrestling record book as an athlete and is now attempting the same feat as a coach at Penn State. No individual has done what Cael Sanderson has done in the sport, and his accolades earned him a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Here's a look at Sanderson's success and the accolades that made him a wrestling legend.
Cael Sanderson biography
A native of the state of Utah, Cael Sanderson is one of four Sanderson wrestling brothers and the son of BYU wrestler Steve Sanderson. A famously quiet, composed man, Sanderson resides with his wife and two sons in Pennsylvania where he's coached the Penn State Nittany Lions to eight titles in the last ten years. Personal details about the life of Cael Sanderson are hard to come by, but we do know about his wrestling history, and that history is quite extensive.
Sanderson discovered wrestling through his brothers at a young age, and, according to an Iowa State wrestling book by Alex Halsted and Dylan Montz, the future four-time NCAA champ developed his focused mindset immediately. He had Olympic wrestling aspirations as early as first grade, and those dreams would turn into a reality a few decades later.
Sanderson found success early and picked up four state championship titles in high school while wrestling for his father at Wasatch High School, just like his other brother Cody. Little did anyone know though that the third-oldest Sanderson would find even more success in college.
Cael Sanderson followed his older brothers Cody and Cole to Iowa State to pursue an education in art and design, and his decision proved to be crucial for Cael and for the Iowa State program as a whole. Iowa State head coach Bobby Douglas welcomed the talented Sanderson brothers into his program and built on the success they had experienced as high school athletes.
The youngest Sanderson brother on the team at the time, Cael redshirted his freshman year and wrestled unattached for the Cyclones. He lost in his redshirt year, but the results never show up on his college record because he technically wasn't competing as an attached college wrestler at the time. As a starter in his four years for Iowa State, Cael never lost. The redshirt results wouldn't repeat itself when Cael took over the starting spot for his team at 184 pounds.
In 1999, Cael's redshirt freshman year, he and Cody made the finals at 184 and 133 pounds respectively, with Cody finishing second and Cael taking home the first of what would be four NCAA championships. Cael's four titles made him only the second wrestler in NCAA history to win four titles, the first being Pat Smith of Oklahoma State. Sanderson also won Hodge Trophies in his sophomore, junior and senior campaigns. His first championship was coincidentally held at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College where he and his brother Cody now coach.
Cody, Cael's older brother, would go on to be an NCAA finalist again in 2000 and end his career as a four-time NCAA qualifier and two-time All-American. Cole, the second-oldest of the four brothers, ended his career as a four-year NCAA qualifier, and Cyler, the youngest Sanderson brother, kept the family tradition alive by becoming a two-time All-American for the Cyclones and the Nittany Lions. Iowa State never managed to win a team title during the Sanderson era, but the team finished second in 2000 and in 2002.
Cael Sanderson's records make him the most successful college folkstyle wrestler of all time, but he also made a splash on the international stage with his success in freestyle. In 2001 while still in college, Sanderson made his first world team, and he followed that honor by qualifying for the 2002 and 2003 teams. The 2003 championships brought Sanderson his first world medal when he finished second behind Sazhid Sazhidov of Russia. One year later, though, Sanderson would be the one standing on top of the podium at the 2004 Athens Olympics with a gold medal around his neck after defeating Moon Eui Jae of Korea 3-1. Sazhidov finished third.
Watch Sanderson's gold medal match here:
After the Olympics, Sanderson retired to focus entirely on coaching. He served as the assistant coach at Iowa State for several years and then the head coach from 2007-2009 before moving to head up the struggling wrestling program at Penn State University, a team that he would build into one of the most dominant dynasties of the 2010s.
Cael's move to Penn State in 2009 ushered in a new era in college wrestling, one led by the Sanderson family. The new Penn State head coach brought along brothers Cody and Cyler as coach and athlete to State College, and the family thrived in its new home. In Cael's first year at the helm, the team went 13-6-1 and finished ninth at the 2010 NCAA tournament, the lowest they would finish in the next ten years. Cael also coached three All-Americans that year including his younger brother Cycler and eventual 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro, but the 2009-2010 season was just laying the groundwork.
On this day in 2009, Cael Sanderson was named as head coach! pic.twitter.com/HzVgoQuYg3— Penn State WRESTLING (@pennstateWREST) April 17, 2018
In 2011, Cael took his team's performances up a notch and won the first of four consecutive NCAA titles and Penn State's first since 1953. Quentin Wright took home an individual title that year while NCAA All-Americans Molinaro, David Taylor, Andrew Long and Ed Ruth also earned top-eight finishes. Taylor, one of Sanderson's prized recruits who followed him from Iowa State to Penn State, would go on to win three NCAA titles and two Hodge Trophies as well as a world title. Ruth garnered similar accomplishments in a Penn State singlet, losing just three times in his career and earning a total of three individual and four team titles.
The 2010-2011 season wasn't just a year the year Penn State wrestlers became national champions for the first time in the 21st century, the year also marked the return of Cael Sanderson, the athlete. Legend has it that Sanderson told his team that if they won Big Tens and NCAAs, he would come out of retirement and wrestle for a World Team spot at the 2011 World Team Trials. Cael hadn't competed since 2004, but the man was a champion, and he did what champions do: he stepped up, won his matches, and made the world team. At 32 years. After having been off the mat for seven years.
Cael finished fifth at the World Championships and hung up his shoes for good, but his performance showed his skill and talent.
Listen to Cael talk about his fifth place finish at the World Championships:
Wrestling fans expected the graduation of Ruth and Taylor in 2014 to end Sanderson's immediate success and slow down Penn State, but more firepower was coming. After redshirting talented recruits in 2015, Penn State would go on another four-year title run, a period that included titles from three-time champions and Hodge winners Zain Retherford and Bo Nickal. Add three-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf, two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph, and NCAA champions Anthony Cassar, Mark Hall and Nico Megaludis and you have a program of legends.
BO NICKAL VS. CAEL SANDERSON: Who would win in this hypothetical matchup?
Cael Sanderson's college records
- Longest win streak (159 wins)
- Best win percentage (1.000)
IOWA STATE RECORDS
- Most wins (159)
- Winning percentage (1.000)
Cael Sanderson's college statistics
The first NCAA title (1999)
Sanderson didn't waste any time in his first year as a starter for the Cyclones. In his first 16 matches, Sanderson bonused all of his opponents, recording five major decisions, seven tech falls and four falls. His first decision win came at the Midlands Championships against James Brimm of Michigan State, but Sanderson still shut him out 5-0. Sanderson went on to win that tournament and raise his profile in college wrestling. At the Big 12 championships in his adopted city of Ames, Iowa, he solidly took down Tom Grossman and Brad Vering for his first conference title, and his wins sent him into his first NCAA championship undefeated. His success at the conference level also earned him Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Big 12 tournament for the first of four times in his career.
The bright lights of the national tournament can paralyze a wrestler, but for Cael Sanderson, this tournament was just like any other. He pinned his first opponent and majored his second. In the quarters and semifinals, Sanderson added two more pins to set up a finals match against Brandon Eggum of Minnesota. That match, a 6-1 decision for Sanderson, was in the Cyclone's control from the start. His performance at the tournament earned him outstanding wrestler honors, and just like that, he became the first Iowa State wrestler to win the tournament as a freshman. Cael's brother Cody also finished second that year to add to the Sanderson success.
Freshman Year (1998-1999) 39-0
E. Brown (Neosho CC) 15-4 MD
L. Bridgeforth (Unattached) 20-5 TF
C. Koop (Unattached) 27-6 TF
Lucas Kluever (Iowa State-Unattached) 13-4 MD
Nick Preston (Ohio State) 17-9 MD
Steve Bartolotta (Cumberland) 3:53 FALL
Josh Hefferman (Ohio) 13-4 MD
Steve Alf (Wisconsin) 24-8 TF
George Flannick (Marquette) 20-5 TF
Joe Brougard (Augustana) 20-5 TF
Steve Burleson (Coe) 1:57 FALL
Brant LaGrange (Simpson) 21-8 MD
B.J. Shelly (Cornell) 3:21 FALL
William Rufis (Ellsworth) :53 FALL
Paul Jenn (Iowa) 19-4 TF
Tom Ciezki (Northwestern) 23-7 TF
Mike Gadsby (Penn) 19-4 TF
James Brimm (Michigan State) 5-0 D
Greg Gingeleskie (Navy) 5-0 D
Aaron Simpson (Sunkist Kids WC) 9-3 D
John Van Doren (Lehigh) 11-4 D
Ryan Rettke (Minnesota State-Mankato) 5:29 FALL
Tom Ciezki (Northwestern) 6-3 D
Casey Strand (Arizona State) 1:14 FALL
Mark Munoz (Oklahoma State) 10-2 MD
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma) 6:40 FALL
Brad Vering (Nebraska) FORFEIT W
Vertus Jones (West Virginia) 6-5 D
Scott Coleman (BYU) 17-7 MD
Matt Carpenter (Southern Colorado) 22-7 TF
Jason Moore (Missouri) 19-6 MD
Tony Spiker (Truman State) FALL
Casey Strand (Arizona State) 6-2 D
Ken Bigley (UNI) 5:51 TF
Big 12 Championship
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma)
Brad Vering (Nebraska)
1999 NCAA Championships
Josh Didion (Cleveland State) 4:46 FALL
Nate Patrick (Illinois) 18-6 MD
Andy Hrovat (Michigan) 4:24 FALL
Brad Vering (Nebraska) 1:58 FALL
Brandon Eggum (Minnesota) 6-1 D
The second NCAA title (2000)
After winning the NCAA tournament as a freshman, Cael Sanderson wasn't just a former high school star with a good college start anymore, he was the man to beat. But he could not be beat in college. His sophomore season started just like his freshman year did, with 15 of his 16 matches resulting in bonus points.
Sanderson's only decision in the first half of the season came against his NCAA championships opponent Brandon Eggum, but Sanderson left no doubt of his power as he defeated the NCAA finalist 7-4. At Midlands, Sanderson rolled to another title with two tech falls, two decisions, a fall and a major decision. Later in the year, he would also beat Damian Hahn, a man who would go on to be a two-time NCAA champion, before winning another Big 12 championship with a bonus win over Tom Grossman and a decision against eventual NCAA finalist, 2004 Olympic teammate, four-time world team member and mixed martial arts champion Daniel Cormier.
As the No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament, Sanderson barreled through all five of his opponents, majoring all of them and tech falling two of the five. In the finals, he scored a statement major decision against Vertus Jones 19-6 to earn his second title and another outstanding wrestler honor. Sanderson's sophomore season also marked the year that the Cyclone champion won his first Hodge Trophy, an honor given every year to the most dominant wrestler in the NCAA. Cody Sanderson also had another successful year, finishing second again, but no one could compete with Cael and his 40-0 perfect season.
Sophomore year (1999-2000) 40-0
Ryan Rettke (Minnesota State-Mankato) 26-11 TF
Bouwman (Waldorf) 20-5 MD
Schmauss (Iowa Central) 3:44 FALL
Brandon Eggum (Minnesota) 7-4 D
Swarm (Nebraska-Kearney) 24-5 TF
Andorf (Wartburg) 17-7 MD
Jessman Smith (Iowa) 17-2 TF
Damion Hahn (Minnesota) 4-3 D
Joe Terrill (Wisconsin) 23-7 TF
Chad Karnal (Augustana) 3:55 TF
B.J. Shelley (Cornell) 22-6 TF
Nathan Ackerman (Simpson) 17-2 TF
Joel Schrimpf (Minnesota State-Mankato) 4:35 TF
Paul Jenn (Iowa) 22-7 DQ
Donavan True (Ohio State) :38 FALL
Joe Cotant (Michigan State) 20-5 TF
Brian Falciglia (Bucknell) 3:52 FALL
Sean Salmon (Montana State-Northern) 20-5 TF
Lionel Helsey (Cal-Bakersfield) 5-1 D
Kevin Vogel (Cliff Keen WC) 17-5 MD
Nate Patrick (Illinois) 7-2 D
Isaac Weber (Oregon State) 16-7 MD
Cash Edwards (Boise State) 4:54 TF
Dave Murray (Lock Haven) 5:36 FALL
Jeff Knupp (Penn State) 21-6 TF
Lionel Halsey (Cal State Bakersfield) 3:14 FALL
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma) 1:53 FALL
Brandon Eggum (Minnesota) 8-0 MD
Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) 20-9 MD
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma) 19-4 TF
Brandon Eggum (Minnesota) 6-1 D
John Maze (Missouri) 27-10 TF
Mike Marshall (Arizona State) 2:49 FALL
Charles McTorry (Nebraska) 22-6 TF
Kyle Hansen (UNI) 2:57 FALL
Big 12 Championships
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma) 17-7 MD
Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) 8-4 D
2000 NCAA Championships
Adam Schaaf (Millersville) 3:51 FALL
Dax Pecaro (UNC Greensboro) 21-6 TF
Rob Rohn (Lehigh) 20-5 TF
Brandon Eggum (Minnesota) 16-5 MD
Vertus Jones (West Virginia) 19-6 MD
The third NCAA title (2001)
As the Cael Sanderson legend grew, so did the pressure. Sanderson entered his third year 79-0, twenty matches shy of Dan Gable's 99-match win streak. Gable lost the final match of his college career in the NCAA finals of his senior season, and Sanderson wanted to avoid the same fate.
He went on a rampage in the early half of the season, recording nearly double the amount of pins he had previously earned in freshman or sophomore season starts. This third season led to a third Midlands title for Sanderson, as he once again beat Nate Patrick for the title in the finals of the 184 pound bracket.
The success continued for Sanderson in the second half of the year, and he added two more decisive wins against the man that would challenge him for his third title: Daniel Cormier. Sanderson beat Cormier twice in the regular season 14-3 and 10-3 and then met his "rival" in the Big 12 finals, where he took down the Oklahoma State All-American 8-3. That win, combined with Sanderson's pin of Ry Stone in the tournament, led him to be named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Big 12 tournament for the third time.
The 2001 NCAA tournament turned into the Sanderson show, as the two-time Cyclone NCAA winner added a third trophy to his collection with another dominant performance. He teched his first-round opponent Kyle Hanson and his quarterfinal opponent Jessman Smith, and he pinned Jeremey Wilson in the Round of 16. A major decision in the semifinals against former NCAA finalist Victor Sveda brought Sanderson back to the center of the arena in a finals match against Cormier, an opponent he beat once again 8-4 to win his third title, his third Most Outstanding Wrestler honor and his second Hodge Trophy. His 40-0 season also gave him his 119th win, a mark that put him 19 wins ahead legend Dan Gable on the all-time NCAA wrestling wins list. Sanderson had cemented himself as a legend with one more year of eligibility left.
Junior Year (2000-2001) 40-0
Nick Curico (Oklahoma) 5:15 FALL
Ralph DeNisco (Wisconsin) 5:25 FALL
Josh Lambrecht (Oklahoma) 12-4 MD
Viktor Sveda (Indiana) 16-3 MD
Mike Odle (Loras) 3:51 FALL
Anton Talamantes (Ohio State) 20-6 MD
Ben Blood (Coe) 18-3 TF
Paul Okins (Minnesota State-Mankato)
Bert Watford (William Penn) :51 FALL
Adam Kellogg (Simpson) 2:55 FALL
Jeff Pangborn (Central Michigan) 1:22 FALL
Jessman Smith (Iowa) 2:17 FALL
THREE-TIME HODGE WINNER: How Cael Sanderson won the prestigious wrestling award three times
Josh Bocks (UNC-Greensboro) 3:26 FALL
Marcus Schontube (Penn) 16-10 D
Francis Volpe (Harvard) 5:11 FALL
Viktor Sveda (Indiana) 14-5 MD
Nate Patrick (Illinois) 16-7 MD
Francis Volpe (Harvard) TF
Ralph DeNisco (Wisconsin) 17-6 MD
Jason Rossotti (Fresno State) :35 FALL
Ralph Everett (Hofstra) 4:04 FALL
Ed Aliakseyenka (Montclair State) 6:45 FALL
Josh Lambrecht (Oklahoma) 16-8 MD
Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) 14-3 MD
Andy Hrovat (Michigan) :38 FALL
Jessman Smith (Iowa) 6:44 TF
Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) 10-3 D
Shawn Scannel (Rider) :39 FALL
Josh Lambrecht (Oklahoma) 25-10 MD
Ry Stone (Missouri) 1:43 FALL
R.D. Pursell (Arizona State) 3:49 FALL
Matt Fletcher (Nebraska) 4:55 FALL
Kyle Hansen (UNI) 21-8 MD
Big 12 Championships
Ry Stone (Missouri) 5:16 FALL
Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) 8-3 D
2001 NCAA Championships
Kyle Hanson (UNI) 24-9 TF
Jeremy Wilson (Portland State) 1:37 FALL
Jessman Smith (Iowa) 6:16 TF
Victor Sveda (Indiana) 21-7 MD
Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State) 8-4 D
The fourth title (2002)
Coming into the 2001-2002 season, Cael Sanderson was perfect. He hadn't lost a match, he had three conference and national titles and two Hodge Trophies. This year was intended as a victory lap for the Cyclone hero, but Sanderson knew that perfection could come to end for him, just like it did for Dan Gable. Pressure, though, was something he managed well.
Sanderson started his senior season by bumping up to 197 pounds and pinning or tech falling all but one of his opponents. He also majored all but one of his Midlands opponents on the way to his fourth title. The remainder of Sanderson's last regular season included ten pins, one decision, a forfeit from an opponent and three tech falls. Blowing through opponent after opponent, Sanderson set himself up perfectly, yes, perfectly, for a fourth Big 12 championship where he tech-falled both Tom Grossman and Scott Barker.
His fourth NCAA championship proved to be his most successful as he bonused all of his opponents in two pins, a tech fall and two major decisions. The final win came against Jon Trenge of Lehigh, the only person to hold Sanderson to a decision in the regular season of his senior year. In the finals though, Sanderson walked away with a 12-4 major decision to wrap up the greatest college wrestling career of all-time in Division I.
A three-time Hodge winner, Sanderson is the only Iowa State wrestler to win the award, but as an individual, he's won more Hodge Trophies than most schools have combined. He finished his career as the 10th four-time All-American in Iowa State program history and accomplished the feat the same year as his teammate Joe Heskett.
Sanderson is one of three four-time conference champions, and he's the most recent wrestler to achieve the goal. As if that's not enough, he's also one of only three athletes to win conference athlete of the year and was inducted into the Iowa State Hall of Fame in 2017. All those honors though, and there's still only one way to describe the wrestling career of the third-youngest Sanderson brother: perfection.
Senior Year (2001-2002) 40-0
Kovarik (Iowa Central) 4:29 FALL
Broadway (William Penn) 21-6 TF
Bietz (Iowa Central) 4:50 TF
Wallace (Nebraska- Omaha) 4:56 FALL
Chris Skretkowicz (Hofstra) 2:20 FALL
Nick Thomas (Penn) 5:53 FALL
Peter Mosley (Brown) 4:50 FALL
Daegen Smith (Duke) 2:45 FALL
Greg Sawyer (Rider) 6:37 TF
Brent Miller (West Virginia) 20-5 TF
Aaron Granell (Augustana) 3:55 FALL
Joe Compton (Cornell) 23-7 TF
Coe College FORFEIT
Bart George (Simpson) :15 FALL
Jareck Horton (Wisconsin) 2:34 FALL
Ryan Fulsass (Iowa) 1:41 FALL
Jim Kassner (E. Illinois) 2:28 FALL
Nick Curby (Illinois) 2:54 FALL
Chris Skretkowlz (Hofstra) 22-5 TF
Jon Trenge (Lehigh) 16-5 MD
Lee Fullhart (Team Excel) 5-3 D
Jason Payne (UNI) 4:03 FALL
Erik Gladish (Arizona State) 4:11 FALL
Tommy Grossman (Oklahoma) 4:38 FALL
Bill Stouffer (Central Michigan) 3:22 FALL
Will Gruenwald (Oklahoma State) 1:31 FALL
Kyle Smith (Michigan) 2:24 FALL
Ryan Fulaas (Iowa) FORFEIT
Jason Gore (NC State) 4:32 FALL
Jon Trenge (Lehigh) 6-1 D
William Gruenwald (Oklahoma State) 4:40 FALL
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma) 1:23 FALL
Scott Barker (Missouri) 22-7 TF
Scott Hollingsworth (Arizona State) 4:50 FALL
Justin Ruiz (Nebraska) 25-9 TF
Jayson Payne (UNI) 23-7 TF
Big 12 Championships
Tom Grossman (Oklahoma) 24-8 TF
Scott Barker (Missouri) 21-4 TF
2002 NCAA Championships
Eric Mausser (Clarion) 3:32 FALL
Kyle Cerminara (SUNY- Buffalo) 6:33 FALL
Jason Payne (UNI) 23-8 TF
Nick Preston (Ohio State) 18-7 MD
Jon Trenge (Lehigh) 12-4 MD