Minnesota has been a national wrestling powerhouse for essentially all of Zach Sanders’ life. Growing up in Wabasha, Minn., about two hours southeast of the U of M along the St. Croix River, Sanders always dreamed of donning the Maroon singlet for his hometown school.
“As a kid growing up in Minnesota, wrestling for the Gophers was the goal. I wanted to be a part of it because this is something special,” said Sanders. “I knew all the Gopher wrestlers. I watched them at the state high school tournament, all the Minnesota guys at least. I was just around wrestling and around Gopher wrestling constantly growing up.”
As a junior wrestler, Sanders made frequent trips up Highway 61 from Wabasha to watch the Gopher dual meets or to train in the Minnesota wrestling room during the summer club season. He became friends with some of the state’s other elite wrestlers when he was younger, multiple-time All-Americans like Jayson Ness and Mike Thorn. The three would later get the chance to wrestle together in Dinkytown, transforming from young wrestlers who idolized collegiate stars to the collegiate stars young wrestlers idolized.
“It was pretty special that we all had the chance to come here and wrestle on the same team,” said Sanders.
Sanders’ Gopher career remains one of the most-decorated in program history. While 17 different Gophers have won individual national championships, only 10 Gophers have earned All-America honors four times in their careers. Sanders is one of these rare four-timers.
“You can write that as a goal, be a four-time All-American, but it’s not like you think about it,” said Sanders. “Each year you’re trying to be as good as you can. That’s the goal. It’s never a ‘I have to be a four-time All-American’ thing. It’s more like ‘Let’s see how good we can be,’ type of thing.”
That genuine curiosity about his personal ceiling, and a willingness to invest the time and effort needed, helped Sanders accomplish all that he did as a Gopher.
“I was just so excited every single day walking down those stairs for practice. I enjoyed the process,” said Sanders. “I wanted to get pushed every day. Even if I knew it was going to be a tough day, I looked forward to it. Practice was the best time of the day. I embraced it and tried to be my best every day.”
Since graduating in 2012 following a third-place performance at the NCAA Championships, Sanders has stayed close to his alma mater by serving as a graduate assistant for the program while training and competing in freestyle on both the national and international level. His Minnesota pride and competitive spirit made him a natural fit for the volunteer assistant coach position on this year’s staff, a spot vacated when Dustin Schlatter was promoted to assistant coach this year. Just as he did during his time as a Gopher wrestler, Sanders brings enthusiasm, effort and a competitive spirit to the wrestling room as a Gopher coach.
“I ready to go every day when I come here and work out with the guys. Get up early in the morning to work out? That’s what I like to do. I’m up the night before planning what I want to show the guys or where they have been struggling because it’s all about progress. I have been through it, so I feel like I can contribute a lot of things that I learned along the way and pass it on to them. I have a lot of pride for being a part of this program. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, or doing it anywhere else, honestly.”