On the mat, he's simply perfect

Before match No. 118 he is calm. He stretches his arms, his neck, and bounces on the balls of his feet.

Then Cael Sanderson jogs onto the mat and does what it seems like he was born to do. The whistle blows and he shoots into the legs of his opponent, Victor Sveda of Indiana University. The crowd gasps, as if they have never seen a man so big move so fast.

Then Sanderson smothers Sveda, methodically, until he is on his back, struggling to avoid a pin. Everything seems effortless, and by the second period the score is 15-6 in favor of Sanderson. Then 20-6, final.

The streak is alive, and Sanderson, the 184-pound wrestler for Iowa State University, has made it to his third consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship.

His record of 118 consecutive wins - soon to be 119 - stands as perhaps the greatest achievement in college wrestling. He is perfect, like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, like Don Larson in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.

"He's a phenom," says Rod Brown, the director of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa. "There's never been anyone like him.

"He'll smash all the records - unless there's a Gable-like upset."

That would be Dan Gable, the great Iowa State wrestler who also won all of his college matches - up to the last, the finals of the 1970 NCAA championships, which he lost to Larry Owings of the University of Washington.

Gable's streak ended at 100.

That is what hangs over Sanderson as he chases the record books - the legend of Dan Gable, the pressure of perfection, the knowledge that one slip could haunt him for the rest of his life.

Sometimes it seems like too much for a 21-year-old.

"I don't think about the streak at all," says Sanderson, who grew up in Heber City, Utah, and was coached in high school by his father. "Every day I wake up and I haven't won any matches yet that day, and that's the way I look at it. I have to prove myself every day."

Shy off the mat, Sanderson is brilliant under the spotlight. He stands out even in an arena full of the country's best. Sometimes it seems as if he is wrestling in a different dimension.

He moves like a panther, sweeping his long arms like steel hooks, all the while driving forward off his powerful legs.

But what makes him special is his craftiness. He puts himself in impossible positions, where it appears as if he is vulnerable. Then, at the last second, he shifts his weight or scoops his opponent's ankle, and in one fluid move gains an advantage. They are moves that only he can see when they develop, but afterward look obvious.

"All he has to do is touch you, and he can score on you," says Gable, who also has been a highly successful college coach at the University of Iowa and coach of the US Olympic team. "He uses very good technique. It's like if you breathe - stop and take your breath - he's gonna touch you, so then he's gonna score on you."

In Iowa, where wrestling is so popular that Gable could probably be governor if he wanted, Sanderson's persona extends well beyond the mat. With his good looks and wholesome values, he is viewed as a potential ambassador for a sport that is ailing. At matches he is surrounded by news media, and he sometimes signs autographs until all the kids have gone home.

Wrestling, known as mankind's oldest sport, has been on a downward slide at the college level for the last 20 years. One reason is an NCAA rule know as Title IX, which requires colleges to provide equal scholarships for women and men. As more money moves into women's programs, schools have cut back on less popular - and lucrative - sports, like wrestling.

The result is that more than 400 colleges have dropped their wrestling programs in the past two decades.

The hope of wrestling enthusiasts is that a star like Sanderson, only a junior and a two-time academic all-America, can resuscitate the sport. Many envision Olympic gold for him, and possibly a coaching career.

Yet, with those expectations comes enormous pressure.

Some observers have suggested that Sanderson's aggressive style makes him more vulnerable to an upset. Whereas Gable sometimes went entire tournaments without giving up a point, Sanderson will sometimes allow his opponent to score several times in a match.

"He's not a conservative wrestler, and sometimes he gets scored on because he is so aggressive," says John Smith, the Oklahoma State coach. "His style is very exciting, but it [could] lead to an upset over the course of a career."

During his championship match last Saturday, when he beat Oklahoma State's Daniel Cormier 8-4, Sanderson showed some rare signs of nervousness. He appeared more tentative than normal, and was even warned for stalling.

After the match he said he was disappointed - a strange comment for someone who just won his third straight national championship and was named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament.

"I think we saw Cael as tight as I've ever seen him in the finals," said Bobby Douglas, the Iowa State coach.

"But Cael's all right, he's fine.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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