Editor’s Notes: In the history of American wrestling, many World or Olympic medalists have come out of retirement to wrestle again. That includes legendary Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist, who returned to compete at the Northern Open in 1975 where his return ended with a loss to Lee Kemp. Gable was present at the 2011 World Team Trials in Oklahoma City, where 2004 gold medalist and current Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson entered the event and won five matches in one day to capture the 185-pound spot on the U.S. World Team with a pair of wins against 2009 silver medalist Jake Herbert.
WIN: Is there something unique about Cael Sanderson that allowed him to return with so much success after a seven-year hiatus from competition?
GABLE: I’ve seen a lot of wrestling matches since Cael had last wrestled in 2004. I didn’t forget what he wrestled like. Every time I’ve seen a certain person wrestle who reminds me of John Smith, I think of John Smith. If I saw person wrestle like what I thought Cael Sanderson wrestled, I’d think of Cael Sanderson. What’s interesting is that these two guys’ styles were not the normal styles of their day. Today, you don’t see those styles. You see reflections. The first thing it tells me is that it must be hard to replicate.
In watching Cael at the World Team Trials, I also saw some things of John Smith. I had seen it before, but not quite as much. Then again, I don’t think I studied Cael Sanderson as much as I did in Oklahoma City.
WIN: What did you see in Sanderson at the Trials that you had not seen before?
GABLE: I saw really good scrambling ability; positioning that put him in a place to score very quickly. Whereas someone might hold a position, Sanderson was in a flurry of scoring action. There were some places and times at the Trials where it looked like Cael could get beat. But he came out of it and actually turned it around for his own scoring position.
WIN: How good could Sanderson be compared to 2004?
GABLE: I know that when I stepped down from wrestling, I got a lot better technically because as a coach, I had to focus on that more. He’s still young enough to do more with it because he’s learning more about it because he’s teaching it. I became more technically sound years after I started coaching and quit competing. I know that Cael continued to wrestle while teaching wrestling. You can tell that by watching him. He has the ability to add to his repertoire of scoring and positioning.
Does that mean that Cael could be better than he used to be? Only results will determine that. When Cael gets in there, it’s a battle. Cael scores quickly, but from a defensive point of view or if his opponent is a really good wrestler, it’s not going to be one and out. If there are two good wrestlers, there is going to be a circle and a scramble. Cael won those scrambles at the Trials
WIN: There are many differences in freestyle rules since Sanderson won his gold medal in 2004. One big difference is that the weights are determined in one day, not two as was the case in 2004. How will that affect him?
GABLE: That could definitely be to his advantage. The Russians have had some really good wrestlers lose outright because they had to come back and wrestle and were no prepared for it.
WIN: Were you surprised by Sanderson’s conditioning at the Trials, especially considering the weight cut he hadn’t done in seven years?
GABLE: He looked good, body-type wise. He looked like he was in good shape. I think he was smart enough to do it right, especially now that he is a coach. That aspect is under control as much as anything. Once you become a coach, you learn all the little flaws. The last time I had seen him, he looked like a healthy 210. He looked like a cut 185-pounder (at the Trials). I don’t think he jumped from one weight to the other. Had he not been a coach, I think he would have had less of a chance to do things correctly. Coaching wrestling kept him close to wrestling.
WIN: A lot of former great wrestlers are or have also considered coming back to competition. You did the same thing in 1975. What goes into that decision?
GABLE: For me it was more of a whim, something to do. I didn’t put any time or thought into the decision. Then as soon as I did it, I questioned it immediately because it didn’t feel right. I was sitting there all banged up, could hardly move my neck and arms. I knew right away, even before I wrestled Kemp that it wasn’t something I really loved anymore. What I really loved was coaching.
I think it also comes down to time and era. When I wrestled in the 1972 Olympics, I had to write a $500 check to pay back money I had received in a clinic. It was before American amateur athletes could receive anything. It wasn’t until I left that athletes started to get something, which was about the time Bruce Baumgartner got 13 medals. He loved wrestling, but he also was able to bring in an extra income.
I don’t believe this is why Sanderson came back. Why is Cael wrestling? He may not even know or he may know. There may be some deep feelings.
WIN: What must one of these athletes have inside them to make a return to wrestling work?
GABLE: There has to be something missing that you want to accomplish. Cael thinks a whole lot about his team’s NCAA championship. I’m sure he has plenty right now to feel good about so it is a little surprising. Maybe it’s that he hasn’t won a World title after finishing second in 2003 in New York. Or maybe he’s doing it to help American wrestling.
WIN: Will Sanderson’s return motivate other former stars like 2008 gold medalist Henry Cejudo to return? What could Henry learn from Cael?
GABLE: That he has to narrow down his focus a little more or Sanderson could show him that he can do more than one thing at a time. Like Cael, Henry also does not have a World title. Perhaps this is the year he should have done it. Henry needs to focus on what he can really do, but he also may not have the same support staff that Cael does.
WIN: Where does Sanderson stand competitively vs. other guys at his weight class like 2009 silver medalist Jake Herbert and top-level guys internationally?
GABLE: Sanderson isn’t just any guy. This is a guy who went through college and could have been tortured mentally as he went through a lot to win four NCAA titles and stay undefeated. He was able to win after going through things others do not want to go through mentally. Here is a guy who is well prepared for success.
I can’t say he’s going to win the World championship because I think he was in some tough matches at the World Team Trials. I think (Jon) Reader pushed him. I think (Raymond) Jordan pushed him. Sanderson came out of some scrambles against Herbert who appeared to be in position to win.
I don’t think that Cael will be able to walk through these World Championships. But then again, he might because three more months of training might put him at a higher level than he’s ever been. Cael also is not going to slip by any videos. I’m sure the Russians already know about him, especially after he beat a former World silver medalist.
I also believe the Worlds have a tougher system; that you pretty much have to reach the semifinals to place.
WIN: What influence could Sanderson have on this U.S. World Team?
GABLE: I think he’s already had an influence. Ever since 2008, I believe that USA Wrestling needs a leader. I really do think with his coaching background that he has much more of a chance now to be a leader because he knows more about what makes a team successful.
He could get the other six guys to rise to a higher level because of how he acts and performs on a daily basis. He can add a more mental influence, which I think will bring out more physical work by the team. If you don’t have that mental development, you will not do the physical work that you need to do.
WIN: Sanderson has been reluctant to commit to the 2012 Olympics. How much of that would be the fact that he is the head coach of the defending national champions and that the 2012 Trials are less than a month after the 2012 NCAAs? How could he possibly focus on the Olympic Trials with what he is trying to do as a coach at Penn State?
GABLE: He has a terrific brother, Cody, and there is a lot of other family support there. You don’t do this alone. As the leader of Penn State wrestling, if he feels that he cannot focus on anything but that, then he must do that. I believe he feels that his program is in good hands with the other people around him.
WIN: If Sanderson does do well at the Worlds, what impact would that moment have on wrestling in this country, including next year’s Olympic Trials?
GABLE: There could only be a positive benefit. If everyone knew that Cael was wrestling ahead of (time) in Oklahoma City, I think there would have been at least another 1,000 fans in the stands.