Cael Sanderson wasn't sure what to do with the two American flags that fans showered on him from the stands at Ano Liossia Olympic Hall, so he draped them over his broad shoulders. And when he stood atop the medal stand, he was so worried that the olive wreath atop his head would slide off during the national anthem that he took it off.
Victory on the mat has come easily to Sanderson, who wrestled his way to a 159-0 record at Iowa State. But celebrating has always been awkward. And it was no different Saturday night, when Sanderson was crowned the Olympic champion in men's 84-kg (185-pound) freestyle wrestling, adding his sport's most coveted title to an already breathtaking resume.
"I'm not real good with props," Sanderson explained after the medal ceremony. "I just wanted to get out of there before I made a fool of myself."
Sanderson, 25, wrestled what his coach deemed "a perfect match" to win gold in his Olympic debut, coming from behind to defeat South Korea's Moon Eui Jae, 3-1, before a boisterous crowd with palpable anti-American sentiments. It was one of three medals claimed by U.S. wrestlers during an action-packed evening.
Stephen Abas, 26, took silver in the 121-pound class after losing to Mavlet Batirov of Russia, 9-1. Abas, of Fresno, Calif., had honed his Olympic skills as a teammate's practice partner at the 2000 Sydney Games and vowed to return stronger for Beijing in 2008.
Jamill Kelly, 26, of Stillwater, Okla., realized an improbable dream just by qualifying for the Olympics. He didn't start wrestling until age 15, never won a high school championship and never was an NCAA all-American. On Saturday, he faced off against three-time world champion Elbrus Tedeyev of the Ukraine, whose videotapes he used to study for tips on technique. Kelly was whistled and booed by Tedeyev's fervent following, which included a Ukrainian journalist who cheered throughout the match. He lost, 5-1, and was awarded silver for his efforts in the 145.5-pound class.
"Right now, I'm still disappointed," Kelly said. "But I'm sure I'll deal with the silver medal."
Sanderson hardly knew what to think of his gold or the achievement it represented. He was bombarded by questions afterward and fielded them all with a dazed air of disbelief.
How did he feel when the gold medal was draped around his neck?
"Lucky," he said. "That's the first thing that comes to my head."
How did he accomplish the two-point move that turned the momentum?
"It was nothing fancy."
What did he plan to do next?
"I'm just going to relax for a long time."
Sanderson earned his spot in the finals by beating former world champion Yoel Romero of Cuba, 3-2, who had beaten him in their only two previous meetings. Moon, a silver medalist in 2000, earned his berth by vanquishing defending world champion Sazhid Sazhidov of Russia, 10-2.
The wrestlers were evenly matched through the first period, which ended after three scoreless minutes. During the break, trainers fanned them with towels and massaged their massive arms.
The second period opened with the wrestlers upright, their arms locked in a clinch. Moon scored first with an escape move. Sanderson grew more aggressive, scoring two for the exposure, in which he turned Moon's shoulders to the mat. He then sealed the victory with a single-leg takedown.
While many Olympic medal-winners mine their moment in the spotlight with lucrative marketing deals in mind, Sanderson seemed eager to step away from it Saturday. His wife, Kelly, waited patiently while he granted interviews. His parents, who had raised four boys, each one a wrestler, were on hand, too.
It's not that the notoriety overwhelmed him. Sanderson has been lauded before. A four-time NCAA champion, he has won an ESPY for Best Male College Athlete. Wheaties has put his chiseled face on a cereal box. Sports Illustrated named his undefeated college career the second-most outstanding achievement in college sports history. Sports Illustrated for Women named him one of the 50 sexiest athletes in 2002. And now, with his latest achievement, U.S. wrestling is looking to its first freestyle wrestler to win Olympic gold as something of a savior, hoping he can do for wrestling what Jimmy Connors did for tennis and Tiger Woods did for golf.
"For U.S. wrestling this is huge," said Bobby E. Douglas, Sanderson's coach at Iowa State. "We needed this in the worst sort of way. Wrestling has taken some big-time hits, and this may help us come back."
As for promoting the sport, Sanderson simply said: "Maybe later. I'm not too worried about that right now. I love wrestling, and I'd love to see the sport do well. But I'm just going to enjoy this. Everything else, I'll start worrying about later."