The day after the Big Ten Champions, Gophers volunteer assistant coach Zach Sanders flew to one of the coldest parts of the world: Yakutsk, Russia. In Yakutsk, Sanders competed at the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup.
As soon as the competition ended, Sanders flew back to America, but this time went straight to Pittsburgh for the NCAA Championships. In the span of two weeks, Sanders coached the Maroon and Gold at their two biggest postseason tournaments in addition to pushing himself against global grapplers.
“I was obviously excited, but it was brutal in a way,” Sanders said of the nearly 18 hours in the air. “It was awesome to be out there, but also by the end I was ready to back with the guys.”
Sanders went 1-2 in Russia competing for Team USA alongside fellow former Gopher and Minnesota native Tony Nelson. Additionally, they were coached in part by Minnesota Storm coach Dustin Schlatter and joined by former Gophers assistant coach Joe Russell, now the assistant coach for Team USA.
The arena was packed and the crowd got especially into the action when the Americans took on nearby Asian nations, Sanders said. The USA wound up taking home the bronze medal.
Sanders, a Wabasha, Minnesota, native was a four-time All-American in the Maroon and Gold and finished his career sixth all-time on the career wins list with 134 victories.
Since wrestling his final match for the Gophers in 2012, Sanders has remained in Minneapolis to coach the Gophers’ light-weights while also maintaining his own training schedule. He’s gotten to compete at the US Olympic Trials, US Open, and many other freestyle wrestling competitions.
After leaving the morning after the Big Ten Championships, Sanders made three stops: New York, Moscow, then, finally, Yakutsk. While in Russia, he was able to tour Red Square, taste local foods, and have over a week of unique travel experiences.
“It’s always fun to go places you’ve never been and do some things you don’t see usually,” Sanders said.
He then landed the day before the NCAA Championships kicked off in Pittsburgh. Despite the exciting, but long, trip Sanders has remained focused on aiding the current wrestlers in the Maroon and Gold.
“Sometimes it feels like he’s more focused on helping us than he is on his own career,” 125-pound Sean Russell said. “He’s an incredible coach for us.”
The joy of coaching stems from Sanders’ desire to grow the sport and help his alma mater achieve greatness. For years he was just a Minnesota kid trying to be a Gophers legend, and now he’s coaching the next decade of Maroon and Gold legends.
“You’ve got to be there for them and help them believe that they can win, they build the confidence with positive experiences,” Sanders said. “I’ve been wrestling forever and sometimes as a guy from the outside it’s easier to notice things from the corner. It’s hard to see myself in problem areas, but I can see them do something and it’s awesome to work on it with these guys.”