“You are going to be thinking about it. There’s no way around that.” These are the words of Cael Sanderson, one of the few Americans who can speak directly to the experience of being athletically perfect. During his four years as an Iowa State wrestler, Sanderson went 159-0. He is the only wrestler in Division I history to go undefeated in more than 100 matches.
“I think I thought more about how I would answer the media’s questions,” he said. “After my freshman year, I knew I wanted to go undefeated, but I also knew I had to keep my focus simple and direct. However, that means giving a boring media interview. I had to focus on being my best for the next match, and I had to move my feet and attack with my hands. It had to be that simple. I would guess that the Patriots are very aware of the magnitude of what they are doing.”
(Larry Owings shocks Dan Gable at the 142 lb finals at the 1970 NCAAs… handing the Cyclone his only loss in HS and college in his very last college match. — Moderator’s caption)
Now a coach at ISU, Sanderson expresses all the sentiments athletes need to will themselves to perfection — he is maniacally obsessed with focus and admits he likes winning only a fraction as much as he hates losing. As a wrestler, he fulfilled all three of Aristotle’s categories of perfection. Yet one obvious paradox remains: Despite being the most statistically flawless grappler in NCAA history, he is not the most famous one. That designation still goes to Iowa State’s Dan Gable, who, not coincidentally, lost his final collegiate match (in heartbreaking fashion) after 181 straight wins.
“Gable losing his final match is probably talked about more — or at least as often — as his greatest victory. The circumstances of that one loss did add a lot to his fame,” Sanderson concedes. “My first thought is that fans like perfection. Perfection is the ultimate goal. But then again, perfection seems unattainable to me. Perfection goes beyond winning and losing. You can win a game and not be perfect. Even though I went undefeated in college, I wouldn’t say I had a perfect career. Since true perfection in sports is unrealistic, I would say that fans want to see that their teams are human, whether they win every game or not.”