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Uplifting Win for U.S. Wrestler

Cael Sanderson gets a fortunate judging call on a video replay and becomes the first American to win freestyle gold at Athens.

August 29, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Pins, not props, are his usual accouterments, the tricks of the wrestling trade.

And so, Cael Sanderson encountered his most perplexing challenge after he had won the gold medal in the 185-pound freestyle wrestling final Saturday night at Ano Liossia Olympic Hall.

You can carefully plan for leg attacks and takedowns.

But what do you do when the wrestling stops and American flags are handed to you? And what's with that wreath that doesn't quite fit?

A self-effacing wrestler based in Ames, Iowa, wasn't suddenly going to turn into Mr. Emotion after beating 2000 Olympic silver medalist Moon Eui Jae of South Korea, 3-1.

"I didn't plan a celebration," said Sanderson, a four-time NCAA champion. "I'm not real good with props. I just wanted to get out of there before I made a fool out of myself."

Dealing with a too-small olive wreath probably wasn't on his radar. They put it on his head during the medal ceremony, then Sanderson took it off during the national anthem, put it back on, then took it off again.

"The nice gentleman thought it would stay," Sanderson said. "I guess he doesn't know what a big head I have."

The dizzying night of Olympic glory -- he became the first U.S. freestyle wrestler to win a gold medal here -- had his sizable head spinning. He is used to success, having never lost at Iowa State (159-0), but this was a fulfillment of his destiny.

"I'm kind of out to lunch right now," Sanderson said.

Two of Sanderson's American teammates fell one step short on the podium. In two other finals, Mavlet Batirov of Russia defeated Stephen Abas of Fresno, 9-1, in the 121-pound category, and three-time world champion Elbrus Tedeyev of Ukraine beat Jamill Kelly of Stillwater, Okla., 5-1, in the 145.5-pound division, then did a back flip to celebrate.

In contrast to those blowouts, the Sanderson final was tense. There were no points scored in the opening three-minute first period.

Moon broke the scoreless tie at 3:07, when Sanderson let go of his lock.

Video replay 4:32 into the match provided the crucial scoring decision. After a scramble, it looked as though officials would award each wrestler two points. After the video review, however, Sanderson got two points, the Korean none.

"You never know what you're going to get, especially in a situation like that," Sanderson said. "To get two points out of that was big."

Said U.S. men's freestyle Coach Bobby Douglas, who coached Sanderson at Iowa State: "They were kind of called two and two, but it was clearly two points for us. There was no question about the move.

"They've been using [video replay] for a long time," Douglas added, "but they've just never used it the way they're using it now. Technology has improved to the point where we get the results real quick."

Sanderson received some breathing room with a leg attack takedown in the final minute. And now wrestling has another potential hero, albeit one a bit reluctant to take the baton from the now-retired Rulon Gardner.

Sanderson said he would worry about that later.

Douglas said this was a watershed moment for the sport.

"This was huge," he said. "We needed this in the worst way. Wrestling has taken some big-time hits and this may help us come back.

"If Cael continues, he can be our ambassador. We need one real bad. I can't think of a better person than Cael."

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