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Sanderson is a virtual unknown, but he earned his ESPY nomination

July 09, 2002|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shaq. Tiger. Barry. Lance.

And oh, yes.

Cael.

The nominees for male athlete of the year at the ESPY Awards show Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood read like a who's who of sports.

But one name on the list might leave people wondering, "Who's he?"

"It's kind of cool. All those names are all household names," Cael Sanderson said.

"Then there's my name. Nobody knows how to pronounce it or who the heck I am."

Sanderson, for the uninformed, is the Iowa State wrestler who went undefeated throughout his college career, finishing with a 159-0 record.

Sure, Shaquille O'Neal and Lance Armstrong have their three-peats in the NBA and Tour de France. Sanderson is one up on both.

He has a four-peat after winning the NCAA title in his weight class four consecutive years.

Only one other Division I wrestler has won four titles, but Sanderson is the only unbeaten four-time champion and the only person named the NCAA championships' most outstanding wrestler four times.

Sanderson is a champion by any name, but people still stumble over his first name, which is pronounced more or less like that of Cale Yarborough, the former Daytona 500 winner.

"As long as it's not Cal or Carl," Sanderson said. "A lot of people call me Kyle. Even wrestling fans are no different. It's kind of like, 'Hey, dude, I thought you'd know.' "

He might not seem to have much in common with O'Neal, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds and Armstrong, but look again.

"I don't know--they're athletes, trying to do the best they can. That's what I try to do," Sanderson said. "They just get paid a little more than me."

He was not under such intense scrutiny as they are, but there was indisputably pressure as Sanderson tried to complete his college career without a defeat. Sports Illustrated rated that accomplishment the second-most impressive in the history of college sports, behind Jesse Owens' four-world-record day in track and field as an Ohio State sophomore in 1935.

"Pressure, I think, is about the same in any sport," Sanderson said. "It's all in the mind and the way you choose to deal with it. The way Tiger deals with it, that's part of his game. That's why he's the greatest."

One of four wrestling sons of a former high school coach from Utah, Sanderson didn't set out to go undefeated in college.

"A goal of mine before I started was to win four titles," he said. "That was kind of a lofty idea, I knew that. But I thought I might as well go for it and believe I could do it. Going undefeated wasn't really that important."

Sometime during his sophomore season, people started talking about the possibility. At his final NCAA tournament in March, it seemed everyone was. An Iowa public television crew followed him around. ESPN dropped in.

And with a 12-4 victory over one of his closest rivals, Jon Trenge of Lehigh, Sanderson completed his undefeated career. The crowd at Albany, N.Y., gave him a standing ovation that lasted five minutes or more.

"It was kind of overwhelming," Sanderson said. "I was kind of at a loss, emotionally, just because it all had come to a climax and just ended abruptly. It was something I'd been thinking about for four years and then it was over."

Still, it's hardly as if Sanderson can't remember the last time he lost. His streak was in collegiate competition.

In freestyle competition--the road he hopes to travel to the Olympics--Sanderson occasionally takes his lumps.

Only last month, at the U.S. trials for the World Championships, Sanderson lost to Lee Fullhart on a two-point move late in the match before coming back to win the best-of-three series and the 185-pound title.

The loss was his first to an American since the 2000 Olympic trials.

"The streak, that stuff's all over," Sanderson said. "I want to win a world championship and a gold medal in the Olympics. I'm not concerned with anything else."

Certainly not that ESPY Award, though he's looking forward to the experience.

So far, Sanderson and Bonds are the only nominees in their category expected to attend the ESPYs. Armstrong, after all, is scheduled to be somewhere around Reims, France, and Woods will be preparing for the British Open.

"I haven't ever met any of them," Sanderson said.

"I've watched them just like everyone else has, on TV."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

And the Nominees Are ...

Candidates for the ESPY Award's Male Athlete of the Year:

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SHAQUILLE O'NEAL

Credentials: The 2001 NBA Finals MVP, started each of the Lakers' 16 playoff games, averaging 30.4 points, 15.4 rebounds and shooting 55.5% from the field during the postseason. Helped the Lakers win the title. Expect him to make another visit here for something he did in 2002.

Past ESPYs: 2001 men's pro basketball player of the year; 1993 outstanding performance by a sports personality in an attempt to break into show business.

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LANCE ARMSTRONG

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