(Clarifies headline. No change to story)
By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON Feb 12 Former champion Cael Sanderson said on Tuesday he was saddened wrestling was on the Olympic chopping block but remained optimistic the sport would ultimately remain in the Games.
"Wrestling and the Olympics go hand-in-hand," he told Reuters in a telephone interview. "When you start taking the original sports away from the Olympics, you really change what the Olympic Games are.
"What are you going to do next, change the name of the Olympics?"
Sanderson and the wrestling world were stunned when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended the sport be dropped from the 2020 Games.
An Olympic freestyle wrestling champion in 2004, Sanderson said he learned of the proposal on Twitter early Tuesday and then his phone "exploded" from so many people calling.
"It was a marquee event in the early Games in Greece," said Sanderson, an undefeated four-time national champion at Iowa State University. "And now you're talking about taking it out of the Games.
"Wrestling is really the epitome of sports in general. It's a combination of mental toughness, stamina, strength and athleticism. It's just a well-rounded sport. It's one-on-one.
"When I think of the Olympics - and I'm a little biased - but wrestling comes right to mind."
Wrestling was part of the first modern Olympics in 1896 but will now join seven other candidate sports vying for one spot in a retooled program.
It is unlikely, however, that it will get a stay of execution when the IOC votes on the recommendation in September as this would defeat the purpose of Tuesday's action.
Sanderson, currently the head wrestling coach at Penn State University who has led the Nittany Lions to two national titles, said he was hopeful the sport would get a reprieve.
"We've got to make sure that the IOC knows that they're making a mistake in trying to eliminate wrestling," he said. "I'm very optimistic that they will see that.
"I'm sure they'll see the uproar that's going on. I'm not so much shocked as I am saddened. Dropping wrestling from the Olympics - are you kidding me? That's crazy."
Sanderson said winning an Olympic gold medal is the "ultimate prize in wrestling." American wrestlers won four medals at the London Games, two gold and two bronze.
"It's what kids dream of," said Sanderson. "They dream of being an NCAA champion as well. But you want to be an Olympic champion. As soon as I knew that the Olympics were, I knew that's what I wanted to do.
"Kids in football dream about catching the winning touchdown or winning the Super Bowl. That's what the Olympic Games are in wrestling." (Editing by Gene Cherry)