Cael Sanderson Interview

Cael, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today. You took the path that most decorated wrestlers do, which is to share your wealth of knowledge pertaining to the sport, and you’ve done a tremendous job at it. You were Head Coach at perennial powerhouse Iowa State for several years.
Now, you are in your second season as Head Coach at Penn State. Why did you choose to take this position and leave your alma mater? Was it tough leaving?

CS: I saw that Penn State had everything my staff needed to build a dynasty. The challenge of taking a good program and moving them to a consistent national title contender was exciting to me. That hasn’t happened yet, but that is the goal. I was very impressed with the support and sincere interest that the alumni on the hiring committee showed me. The passion that people had to see the program make progress was very inspiring.

It was very difficult to leave Iowa State. I loved my time there and I am very grateful that I went to Iowa State to be coached by Coach Bobby Douglas. Iowa State is always going to have a great wrestling program. I also thought it would be a great thing for the sport of wrestling to have another program actually in the hunt for national championships regularly. There hasn’t been a lot of parity in college wrestling. Only a few teams have won national championships in the last 20 years. The more teams competing for a national title, the better it is for our sport. Parity is strength and creates interest.

It definitely seems like you created a title contender after just one year. How did the transition from wrestling to coaching go? Was it easy since you were so exposed to it or did you gain more of an appreciation for how your coaches helped you become the successful wrestler you are?

CS: The transition went well, just because I’ve been around great coaches my whole life. I believe I was very coachable as an athlete and that willingness to learn helped me transition. Having our phenomenal staff around me helps a great deal as well. We coach as a team and I rely heavily on Coach Cody Sanderson, Coach Casey Cunningham, and Coach Letters. We have a great staff with excellent chemistry. I can really appreciate how my coaches helped me and I learned everything I know from them.


During your first year at PSU, you guys finished 9th in the NCAA Wrestling Championships; a very respectable finish that many would love to be a part of. Were you happy with your finish or were you disappointed? What improvements will be made for this year?

CS: If we would have the opportunity take a 9th place finish at the NCAA Tournament after our first dual of the year I think we would have jumped on that. But our team improved over the season and I think we could have done even a little better, but we had some great things happen as well.

We will have a lot of new faces in the lineup this season. Our recruiting has gone very well and we will have a much stronger team this year.

The pre-season rankings show that you’ve got stronger as well. Being ranked 6th in the nation in the 2010-2011 Pre-Season NCWA/USA TODAY COACHES POLL, do you think that rankings like this help your wrestlers or hurt them given the expectations upon them?

CS: I don’t think preseason rankings mean much. They are just speculation. I think the polls were generous to our freshman but I also believe our freshman will do better than expected in those polls. We are just going to be the best we can be. The rankings are for the fans.

Obviously you’re a very competitive guy and I’m sure the expectations you have for your team this year will be no less than the ones you had for yourself. No one has the success that you have had without the utmost confidence in their ability and drive to be the best.
How will you set the plans this year during practices to win Nationals and knock off Iowa? How difficult will it be; especially with powerhouse teams like Wisconsin, Cornell, Iowa State, Oklahoma, OSU, Ohio State, and Minnesota in the mix along with teams like Boise State, Mizzou, Central Michigan, and Edinboro coming up on the rise?

CS: It’s competitive. We have to focus on ourselves and being the best we can be. We have to go to practice and get better every day, even if it is only a fraction of a percent. On game day, we have to wrestle with fire and passion. If we do these things, we will be right in the hunt for the championship.


At what weights on your team are the guys capable of winning an individual National title? What will be the hardest weights you’ll have to overcome this year?

CS: The weights we have the best chance of winning individual championships are probably 141, 149, 157, 174 and 184. We have other weights that our guys can win but they will have to make progress between now and March. Even the guys at the weights I mentioned have to continue to make progress if they are going to win, and they will have to compete ferociously to get it.

You’re up there  as one the best coaches given your success at Iowa State (you never finished lower than 5th at the NCAA Championships and never had a wrestler not qualify for nationals) and the roster holes your first year at PSU.
Other than yourself, who do you think is the best coach in the country? Do you have to give it to a guy like Brands for how he’s restored Iowa to be the pinnacle of success? How do JRob, Rob Koll, John Smith, Barry Davis, and Tom Ryan rank up there?

CS: Ranking coaches is a difficult thing to do. There are many, many great coaches. Each coach has a different set of strengths and obstacles to overcome and use. It’s not like all of the coaches start from scratch and their university support, alumni support, tradition and many other critical things they have at their disposal are equal. It isn’t necessarily a level playing field. Regardless, Iowa is the team to beat. They have won the last three NCAA Championships. Coach Brands has done an incredible job there. It is also amazing to see what a coach like Tom Borelli has done with little resources at Central Michigan.


I had the pleasure of going to J Robinson’s 28 Day Camp. It was nothing short of grueling and an eye opener that shaped me into the person I am today. It focused on intensity and work ethic, where other camps like Carl Adams and Rob Kohl have more of a concentration on technique. Which philosophy do you preach in your camps? Also, do you plan on implementing a long intensive summer camp to compete with JRob’s?

CS: We are a mix of technique and intensity. I am not big into making kids run a bunch of miles. There is merit in that, but I would rather spend time pounding fundamentals in their head. Our staff works hard to give a lot of personal attention to campers and make sure they leave better wrestlers both technically and emotionally. Because of the work we put into the camps, our numbers have continued to grow in the rough economic climate over the last few years. We spend a lot of time working on what we feel are the fundamentals of wrestling but we have fun and show some solid tricks as well.

Through the gossip heard on wrestling forums, it appeared as though you and Bubba Jenkins (the 2008 National Championship Runner-Up) didn’t exactly see eye to eye, which may have forced him to leave. From an outside perspective, it seemed like you wanted to put your team in the best possible position to win by putting him at one weight and he wanted to go at a different weight as he felt it was his best opportunity to win an individual national title.
Can you explain what happened and are you upset that he left to go to Arizona State? How have you handled that struggle in trying to replace one of the best wrestlers in the country?

CS: There has been a lot of misinformation out there on this. The truth is that Bubba Jenkins broke team rules several times and we dismissed him from the team. That’s it. Bubba had a spectacular career at Penn State and we wish him well at Arizona State.


Your brother following you to PSU from Iowa State must have been very special. Explain how that felt.

CS: It meant a lot that Cyler would follow us to Penn State. He was basically graduated and he had a lot of close friends on the team at Iowa State. But when it came down to it, he said he wanted to be with his brothers. That was pretty special for me.


College wrestling programs are the most demanding of any sport. Coaches demand the most out of their athletes to properly prepare them to be beasts for a full 7 minutes during a match. However, there is such thing as overtraining and the requirements of rest and recovery. Is it necessary to train intensely 6, 7 days a week like many college programs demand? How do you manage running intense practices multiple times a day with the implementation of proper recovery?

CS: We don’t train like most college programs. We have a year long plan. We train hard, wrestle hard and condition hard, but we also give our guys adequate days off. Our philosophy is to get more out of the time we are training, than to put more hours in. I think most college programs do overtrain.

I totally agree with you and that’s a great philosophy. Perhaps your philosophy is why you were so great. Cael, you have the greatest accomplishment in all of sports- a streak that in all probability will never be broken (4 National Championships and a 159-0 Collegiate Record). How did you handle the pressure of going undefeated with the media and the world on your back “waiting” for you to lose? You proved them wrong, but was that pressure unbearable and overwhelming at times?

CS: Sure there was pressure, but it was a lot of fun. I believed I was destined to go undefeated. I wrestled for the team and tried to help the team instead of focusing on myself. I felt very confident in my mentality that I was going to fight for 7 minutes and I’d take whatever the result was after that. I kept things simple and focused being the best I could be. The pressure was there but I thought it was a good thing because it meant I was doing something great. Coach Douglas told me that if I wanted the pressure to go away, all I had to do was lose. Comments like that kept me motivated with the correct perspective. Also, my dad helped me understand that the media just wanted a story and that they didn’t care if I won or lost. Either way, they were going to have a story. That’s not true for all media obviously, but it helped me understand how things worked and that helped ease the pressure. I didn’t read papers or ever look at a message board. I remember one time I got to class early and I was sitting on the computer and I looked at one of the message boards and the subject line was something about who was going to beat me. Then I saw that there were several hundred responses. I turned it off and never looked again.


Watching you, it didn’t seem like you were one to wait for certain openings to come to you. Rather, it looked as if you created any opening you wanted and you could literally hit any move you wanted on any opponent. Even against the best in the world, it seemed that if you wanted that ankle pick, you’d set it up and hit it. Describe how you were able to be so effective in your set ups and execution?

CS: I worked hard in matches. My focus was on creating scoring opportunities. I tried to use every second of the match to set up my shots. Coach Douglas taught me how to use my hands to create angles. I had to make some adjustments on the top 3 guys in the world and attack more from the outside. It certainly wasn’t easy. I wasn’t good enough to win without a lot of hustle.

Well, you made it look easy enough. You certainly had expectations to always be the best, but when you went into international competition, you entered what was practically a whole new sport with new rules and much stiffer competition. When you suffered a few losses (I was actually at Madison Square Garden at the World Championships where you suffered that heartbreaking loss by one point), including the second of a three round wrestle off against Lee Fullhart (where you won the first and third rounds to beat him), did you ever lose faith in your ability or question your commitment to the sport? How did you regain your composure to stay focused and ultimately win the most decorated accomplishment ever: the Gold medal?

CS: I struggled a little bit after college because I put so much pressure on myself. It was a different type of pressure than I had in college. In college I was wrestling for myself, my team, and my family. That was fun, and the reality was that I was a much better folkstyle wrestler. I didn’t have the same passion for competing after college but that’s not why I lost matches. I always wrestled hard, I just got beat. I had to get better in freestyle. I put the pressure on myself that I had to win or I was a failure type of thing and that obviously doesn’t work. . I did question myself and my motivation was weak at times. That was a mental error and flaw on my part and something I had to correct. It was difficult, but with the support and help of many people I was able to make it happen. To go from where I was mentally the winter before the Olympics to where I was going into the Olympics, I would call a small miracle. I just had to get back to the same mentality that I had my entire life which was focusing on doing my best. My dad always told my brothers and I that when we went to a tournament growing up that “we didn’t come here to win, we came to fight!” That simple approach is the truth regardless of the level of competition or circumstances.


How did you ultimately adjust and make the transition between college and International wrestling? What did you work on more and how did you adapt?

CS: I had to get better at finishing my shots. In folkstyle I could shoot in, roll around and come up on top. That doesn’t work in freestyle, because any back exposure, even a less than a second, is points. There were areas that I didn’t reach my potential in, but in that short two year time period I focused on improving my strengths and staying out of my weaker areas.

What was a more gratifying experience: 159-0 and capturing your 4th NCAA title or the Olympic Gold Medal? Obviously a gold medal is more individually important to athletes than a collegiate championship, but being able to do something that Dan Gable couldn’t even do; and solidifying yourself as the best wrestler in American history has to rank up there, right?

CS: That is a generous statement, so thank you. I would feel more comfortable with you saying the best folkstyle wrestler, but even measuring something like that is impossible. I certainly am not the best freestyle wrestler or even close.

If I could only pick one of those accomplishments I would pick the 159-0/ 4 NCAA titles because it hasn’t been done before. We have had several Olympic Champions. The Olympics is obviously a higher level of competition, but both are very similar to me in how I feel about the experiences. The emotion I felt after the final matches in both competitions was very similar.

Do you think the U.S. should keep folkstyle/collegiate wrestling or should we go to freestyle in an effort to be more competitive Internationally?

CS: Folkstyle is the base of wrestling in the United States. High school and college wrestling draw considerably larger crowds and support than freestyle so I would be very cautious adjusting folkstyle to freestyle. The international wrestling rules change too often and I doubt many agree that the current rules are ideal. Folkstyle wrestling has been more consistent and I think that is a sign of strength.


During your collegiate training, was cutting weight a big part of your regimen or did you wrestle at your natural bodyweight?

CS: I had to diet and work hard to maintain my weight but I wasn’t a big weight cutter. In college you weigh–in an hour before the competition. That was a great move and has eliminated a lot of the drastic weight cutting.


Clearly, technique and conditioning are the more important aspects of wrestling, but strength certainly helps improve positioning and finishing. How much did weightlifting comprise of your routine?

CS: I was more concerned about hustle and technique as a competitor but strength is icing on the cake. I did lift weights. The year I took second in the world I learned that I had to get stronger. I felt that the top guys were much stronger than me. I did a lot of cleans and thought about lifting in wrestling terms. In wrestling you have to explode, and push and pull. So I did the exercises that made me a stronger wrestler. When I first got to Iowa State, Coach Douglas told me that if I did 50 pull ups every day I would be an Olympic Champion. I did 50 every day. When I first got to Iowa State I couldn’t do 10 pull ups. I feel like you get the majority of your strength through wrestling. After practice, as an athlete, I always did a couple sets of wall sits, rope climbs, sprints, pull ups, and shoulder press.

Jake Varner was your prodigy (no pun intended) during your reign at Iowa State. How much did he learn from you and how many similarities in yourself do you see in him? How do you think his future will hold up in the sport of wrestling?

CS: Jake Varner has many outstanding and rare qualities that have made him what he is today. He hates to lose. He hates to give up a point, even in practice. He is extremely competitive throughout every second of every day. That means he refuses to not be successful, and that’s why he continues to improve and will have success on the international level.

Another thing is that he also picks the best partner he can find every day. He asked me to wrestle him every day of the year. That is rare. Not many kids pick the best workout partner they can find every day. The ones who do usually go on to be great. They get the most out of their potential. Jake is obviously a powerful athlete, but his mental toughness matches his physical strength. He has a great understanding for the sport and that is what it takes to be successful.

Jake is now training at Penn State and wrestling for the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.


Do you plan on doing MMA at any point in your future?

CS: I don’t personally plan on doing any MMA in the future. It hasn’t really even been a thought other than for fun. The career I chose doesn’t really leave much room for anything like that. I do enjoy watching the sport though.


What are your future goals in wrestling and in life?

CS: My future goal is to build the best program possible. We want to win national championships…We want to help student-athletes get the most out of themselves in the classroom on the mat and in life…We want to win national championships. I also want to help build the sport of wrestling at all levels.

As far as life, nothing comes before my family. My wife Kelly and I have two young boys and nothing is more important to me than to raise them up to be hard working, God loving people. Wrestling is my passion, my family is my life.

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