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ATHENS, Greece - Cael Sanderson was in unfamiliar territory with two minutes left in his Olympic quarterfinal wrestling match Friday.
He was behind 5-3, a position he did not encounter often in winning three state championships at Heber City's Wasatch High or in going undefeated (159-0) through college at Iowa State, where he won four NCAA titles.
But there was no sign of panic on his face, just grim determination as he stepped up his already aggressive wrestling
style and took the attack to Iranian Majid Khodaei. After all, he knew that here in Athens "if you win you're moving on. If you don't, you're going to the Parthenon."
Sanderson got one point back right away, using his trademark right ankle grab to pull Khodaei down. But try as he might, he could not get the equalizer until just 21 seconds remained in regulation.
Forcing extended time, he wasted no time putting an end to the match. As soon as the referee blew his whistle to start overtime, Sanderson shot for his opponent's right ankle and got it. Just 14 seconds in and a few twists of that ankle, Sanderson had the point he needed to advance to today's medal round in the 185-pound freestyle wrestling division.
He slapped his hands, pumped his right fist toward his family in the stands and knew he had a semifinal match today that assures him of a shot at a medal.
"Having to come from behind makes it that much more special, I guess," he said. "I was having fun out there, even though I was down. It was just a good match, the crowd was getting into it and I knew I'd come back."
Waiting until almost the end took a toll on his coach, Bobby Douglas, however. All Douglas could do after the match was roll his eyes, indicating how nervous he had been with the deficit.
Not Sanderson, though.
"I wouldn't say I was nervous. I wasn't real pleased with it, giving up points like I do," he said, referring to three points he gave up on a takedown and a rollover in the first 30 seconds of the second half that left him down 5-3. "It happens. That's my style of wrestling. I give up a lot of points in unnecessary situations. That's the thing I'm trying to reduce a little bit and make it easier on myself."
His father and first coach, Steve Sanderson, acknowledged he was a bit nervous when Cael still trailed entering the final minute, but added "he'd taken [Khodaei] down a couple of times, and I felt comfortable he could come back. He's worked awfully hard for this, so he'll make the most of his opportunities. This is a byproduct of his ability to work hard . . . to be as good as he can be."
Sanderson knows he cannot afford to surrender unnecessary points today.
His semifinal matchup is against Yoel Romero, the silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 1999 World Champion from Cuba. And nothing in the first day of competition suggested that the other half of the bracket won't serve up Russian Sazhid Sazhidov, who mangled three opponents to move into his semifinal against South Korea's Eui Jae Moon.
"I've got an extremely tough day," Sanderson said, noting he is 0-4 lifetime against Romero and Sazhidov.
The match against Romero is likely to be quite tight, Sanderson expects, with the 27-year-old Cuban "waiting for me to make mistakes. That's what he's done the last few times I wrestled him."
He added: "I have to make real clean shots and work real hard on my setups. But don't tell him that."
Sanderson was just one of three Americans to advance to the medal round, the best day yet for U.S. wrestlers at the Athens Olympics.
Stephen Abas from Fresno State pulled off a two-point comeback with 19 seconds left to beat Rene Mondero of Cuba 4-3 and advance to the 121-pound (55 kg) semifinals, while Jamill Kelly beat Elman Asgarov of Azerbaijan 3-2 in extended time to reach the 145.5-pound (66 kg) semis.
But American freestyle heavyweight Kerry McCoy, who USA Wrestling officials considered a gold medal possibility, fell in an extended time decision to Marid Mutalimov of Kazakhstan.