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(Editor’s Note: Much of this story was written after the United States competed in Athens, Greece in the 2004 Olympics.)
By Bryan Van Kley, WIN Publisher
Two very different roads to Athens, Greece, and the 2004 Olympics … and one very similar destination.
Cael Sanderson and Jamill Kelly both competed in the Olympic finals, Aug. 28 in Athens, Greece, less than 60 minutes apart. Ironically, the paths they took to get to the Ano Liossia’s Olympic Hall couldn’t have been farther apart.
Sanderson is the sport’s golden boy. After winning four Utah state championships, four NCAA titles, three Dan Hodge Trophies and a silver medal in the 2003 World Championships, Olympic gold was the logical last step.
Kelly, meanwhile, grew up in Atwater, Calif., where he failed to win a state prep title. Kelly attended a junior college and then wrestled two years at Oklahoma State, failing to ever touch the All-American stand.
So after a mediocre college career, he faced a crossroads in his wrestling career: retire or listen to the advice of his college coach and two-time Olympic champion John Smith.
“There was something I really saw in him to be a lot better wrestler in freestyle than in college,” Smith said.
And it paid off in Athens, where Kelly won his first three matches — including a third-round bout against Russia’s Makhach Murtazaliev — before settling for a silver medal following a loss to Ukraine’s Elbrus Tedeev in the title bout.
Smith’s vote of confidence meant a world of difference to the former Cowboy, literally.
“Confirming that I wanted him to stay (and train in Stillwater) meant a lot to him,” Smith said.
Such a goal was a stark contrast to Sanderson, whose Olympic dreams could be seen back in Heber City, Utah.
After a highly-heralded prep career wrestling for his father, Steve, at Wasatch High School, Sanderson headed east to Iowa State and arguably completed the most storied collegiate career in wrestling history. In route to going 159-0, Sanderson was named O.W. in each of his four NCAA titles.
“I think Cael was destined to be where he is now,” said Bobby Douglas, Sanderson’s college and personal freestyle coach.
Destiny doesn’t make it easy.
After racking up two straight wins in his pool, 4-2 and 9-1, Sanderson found himself in the quarters against Majid Khodaei of Iran, a freestyle powerhouse in international wrestling.
Early in the second period, Sanderson trailed by two points, 5-3. After a single-leg takedown pulled Sanderson within one with just over two minutes left in regulation, Khodaei was able to hold off his pursuing U.S. opponent until a Sanderson takedown with 22 seconds left in the match tied the score 5-5.
Only 14 seconds into overtime, a patented Sanderson ankle pick gave him the huge 6-5 win to advance to the semifinals. The normally emotionless Sanderson pumped his fists a couple times and clapped his hands as if to confirm that this event was different than all the others.
“Having to come from behind made that match special,” he said. “I was having fun, even when I was down. It’s been a few matches since I felt like that.”
The win set up a semifinal battle with Cuba’s Yoel Romero, who had beaten Sanderson in their only two meetings. But Sanderson prevailed and eventually won the gold medal against Korea’s Eui-Jae Moon in the championship tilt.
In the Greco-Roman tournament, only one American — heavyweight Rulon Gardner — earned a medal. But it was not made of gold — like the one the former Nebraska Husker earned in 2000 with a stunning win over 13-time World/Olympic gold medalist Alexander Karelin.
That chance ended when he lost his semifinal to Kazahkstan’s Georgi Tsurtsumia. But Gardner found some solace when he defeated Iran’s Sajad Barzi in the bronze medal match.
The first two-time Olympic Greco medalist from the United States officially retired when he sat alone at the center of the mat and took off his shoes: the traditional manner of retiring high-level wrestlers.
Meanwhile, history was being made in the women’s freestyle tournament … because it was the first time women — who had been competing in World Championships since 1987 — competed in the Olympics.
And with that setting, Patricia Miranda became the first U.S. women to earn an Olympic medal (105 pounds). After winning her first three bouts, the graduate of Stanford lost her semifinal to Ukraine’s Irina Merleni. A victory over France’s Angelique Hildago gave Miranda a bronze medal.
The only other of the four women competing in Athens to claim a medal was silver medalist Sara McMann, who won her first three matches before losing to Japan’s Kaori Icho in the final at 138 pounds.