Penn State Wrestling v. Maryland, Coaches

Coaches Cael Sanderson, Casey Cunningham, and Cody Sanderson give direction during Penn State wrestling’s meet against the University of Maryland in Rec Hall on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. Penn State won 40-3 over the Terrapins.

Wrestle for Penn State and it's likely there'll be a greater good involved.

Whether it's being someone's training partner and making them better, winning dual meets to extend a streak, or racking up bonus points to help in a team race at the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament, there’s a larger picture that’s omnipresent.

Such is the case in seemingly all walks of life in the Penn State wrestling room.

Those instances are just some of the ways it manifests itself, but there's another one — an even bigger one — that 12th-year coach Cael Sanderson feels is the most alluring to potential future Nittany Lions.

"The opportunities they have to be Olympic champions — that's the pinnacle of wrestling. NCAA wrestling is the pinnacle of folkstyle wrestling, but they go hand in hand, and they're both major goals of these kids," Sanderson said following this year's NCAA Tournament. "Most of the kids in our room I believe want to be Olympic champions, and I think that's the reason they choose Penn State."

Six former Nittany Lion wrestlers, dating back to 1924 and as recently as 2016, have represented their respective countries on the Olympic stage, as well as Greg Elinsky, who was an alternate in 1992.

Coupled with the fact that Sanderson, current assistant coach Jake Varner and current Nittany Lion Wrestling Club resident athlete Kyle Snyder were all Olympic gold medalists, it's surprising they don't travel around in a Brinks truck.

Sanderson and Varner, as well as Cody Sanderson and Casey Cunningham, also help coach Penn State's freestyle arm, the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.

Penn State Big Ten Wrestling Championship (Varner&Sanderson)

Penn State’s assistant coach, Jake Varner, (left), and Penn State’s head coach, (right), Cael Sanderson watch Penn State’s Michael Beard wrestle Northwestern’s Lucas Davidson in the 197-pound at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship on Sunday, March 7, 2021 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa. Beard lost 6-4 by decision and placed sixth overall at 197 pounds.

The NLWC has become a fixture on the freestyle stage under Sanderson.

But it got its real start as the brainchild and vision of former longtime coach Rich Lorenzo as both a way of supporting Penn State's wrestlers with Olympic aspirations and maintaining competitive ground.

In the nearly four decades since Lorenzo first took the Penn State job and since the NLWC was first thought up, it's largely had the intended effect, helping produce World and Olympic team members and World medalists.

This weekend, its impact could reach even greater heights and could help cement its place as one of the preeminent freestyle clubs on the scene, as 11 current or former Penn State or NLWC resident athletes are slated to compete at the Olympic Trials.

Four current NLWC athletes — Thomas Gilman at 57 kilograms, Zain Retherford at 65 kilos, Jason Nolf at 74 kilos and reigning World champion David Taylor at 86 kilos — are all top seeds in their weight class for the trials.

Sure, it's likely Retherford, Nolf, Taylor and any of the other former Nittany Lions competing will take pride in representing Penn State and the NLWC on the Olympic stage.

And though their times in college singlets are done and they're not as focused on a team race or any similar situation, there's still a greater good at play.

Take it from someone who's been in their shoes.

Kerry McCoy is Penn State's most decorated heavyweight of all-time and one of the most decorated wrestlers across any weight in program history.

A two-time NCAA and three-time Big Ten champion, McCoy is also a two-time Olympian, the former head coach at both Stanford and Maryland and currently the coach at California RTC.

McCoy often competed against Penn State both in recruiting and on the mat while he was a collegiate coach.

But now as a freestyle coach, what used to be competition has molded into something different.

"Competition, it's a relative term because there are other athletes that are going to be considering other clubs and other resources and other opportunities, collectively throughout the country," McCoy told The Daily Collegian in March 2020. "If we're working together to make World and Olympic champions, that's a good thing for American wrestling as a whole. So it's not really a competition, it's more of a cooperative effort."

Penn State Big Ten Wrestling Championship (Sanderson)

Penn State’s head wrestling coach, Cael Sanderson watches Brady Berge during his match against Minnesota’s Brayton Lee at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship on Sunday, March 7, 2021 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa.

Whether it's McCoy out in California or Sanderson in Central Pennsylvania, the goal of an RTC coach largely remains the same — helping some of the sport's elite athletes realize a goal that's often been decades in the making.

As a result, the impact is often greater than what it may be on the college level or at any other level.

"To be able to have an impact on a wider scale with the Regional Training Center, it's pretty cool, because the goal is to help people reach their full potential with the foundation of that being World or Olympic champions," McCoy said. "That can start at five years old, and that can go until whatever age, so I think that's a big difference in the scope of being able to influence and have an impact on a wider, broader audience."

Being involved in Penn State's illustrious wrestling program and being a part of the greater good doesn't just pertain to the athletes, though.

Especially in Olympic years and Olympic cycles, team goals tended to become secondary to individual goals, as was the case when McCoy and teammate Sanshiro "Sunny" Abe, competed for the Nittany Lions.

Both suited up for Penn State in the 1990s under coach John Fritz, whose squads finished inside the top five at NCAAs in all but one of his six years at the helm.

At times, Fritz had to sacrifice potential team success for individual success, but he recognizes and appreciates just how necessary that is and the larger impact it can have.

"As a coach, you have to look at each individual, and you want to do what's best for them and their development," Fritz told the Collegian last year. "Your program is only as good as each individual and what's right for them. At the time, it was right for them to pursue their goals. Even though it has nothing to do with their college situation, it has to do with their goals and their professional goals later on in life, so I don't think you ever want to hold that back. I wanted to give them every opportunity to reach their goals, not only as a national champion but as an Olympic champion."


Abe's journey to being an Olympian was far different than all but one of Penn State's Olympic wrestlers.

A former national champion at 126 pounds, Abe represented his home nation of Japan in the 1996 games and would frequently travel from State College to Japan to train during his senior year.

"Looking back now, I don't know how I did it," Abe said last year. "When I was competing that year, I didn't think about anything. I was so focused on just two big goals — to win nationals and to go to the Olympics."

A four-time All-American, Abe won his only NCAA title as a senior in March 1996, and then turned around and competed in the Olympics in Atlanta later that summer.

Meanwhile, Penn State finished fourth in the team race that year. Still, it was always about letting Abe and other individuals pursue their goals, even if it meant skipping duals or tournaments.

"The whole staff was understanding, and they knew what I wanted to achieve, and they saw that and understood and let me pursue those goals," Abe said. "They were fine with that, and they said: 'Listen, we'll do what we've gotta do. You've just got to do your part.' I'm so glad that they knew what I wanted to achieve both internationally and NCAA wise."

This sacrifice and serving the greater good was a part of the fabric of Penn State long before Sanderson took the reins of the program, but it's a tradition he's taken seriously and has worked hard to maintain.

As many of Sanderson's current and former wrestlers and NLWC members take the mat this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, for the trials, they'll be doing their best to strive for more and help the bigger picture both at Penn State and on other stages.

Sanderson is confident that'll happen.

"History would show that our college kids do really well coming off of their college seasons getting into Olympic freestyle wrestling and that they're in great shape and all those things," Sanderson said. "You just need to make a few modifications and adjustments, but wrestling is wrestling, and they'll be in great shape at the trials."

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