Saunders Chases A Dream

By Keyon Johnson

It was a thought that had never passed through the mind of Townsend Saunders, when he first stepped onto a wrestling mat during his junior year of high school. That thought of him receiving a phone call from Arizona State University's senior associate athletic director Don Bocchi wishing to induct him into Arizona State University's Hall of Fame.

"I think that was kind of cool," said Saunders. "That was a tremendous honor and I am proud of that."

Saunders had not had very much experience in wrestling before he arrived at ASU. He began wrestling as a junior in high school where success was not easy to come by. With hard work, by the time he was a senior at Torrance High School, Torrance, Calif., he advanced all the way to the state championship match. This matched proved to be a little bit more than he was ready for.

"I remember being in high school where I lost the state championship my senior year," Saunders said. "I was really upset with myself because you set your goals up to win all of those titles. I remember being in my bed at night in the summertime, thinking that I probably won't make the Olympic team now because there is someone out there who can actually beat me. I really got beat and didn't come close. At that time I thought those dreams might be crushed."

Good thing that Saunders did not let those negative thoughts deter him from what he set out to accomplish, and that was to be the best wrestler that he can be.

"I think it is situations like that that kept me motivated to aspire to keep trying and working harder," Saunders said. "At the end of the day, I was able to make two Olympic teams. I pushed myself past those milestones. Having those obstacles presented, I took on as challenges for me to overcome. Those losses were those milestones for me."

Saunders did in fact meet those challenges head on and powered through them. After finishing high school, Saunders went on to wrestle about an hour and a half away from home at Cal State Bakersfield, which - at the time - had a rich tradition of developing great young wrestlers. His stint at Bakersfield ended when one of his wrestling coaches decided to make the move to Arizona State University because he had aspirations of making the 1988 Olympic team in Seoul, Korea. Once he stepped onto Arizona State's campus he found himself surrounded by great athletes who were very focused and determined to be the best. All of this gave him the confidence and desire to be the same.

"There were a lot of guys that would come into town and train here in preparation for tournaments in Russia or the Olympic trials," Saunders said of Arizona State. "It was the same competition that you would face year in and year out. It was just a good environment for me to have been in when I moved here to ASU from Cal State Bakersfield."

In 1988 Arizona State won the NCAA championship and that had a lot to do with the depths of workout partners that were in the room.

"The people that were still on the team that were trying to make All-American status and national champions and also on the other end potential Olympic athletes, trying to make an Olympic team," Saunders said. "I was exposed to a lot of good and talented athletes around that time."

Saunders developed the notion that the longer he worked at his craft, the better that he would become.

"I had a little bit of success as a high school athlete and the first couple years of college, but the longer that you do it the better you seem to become, the more experience you have, the more likely you are to have a successful career. I guess that I got better with time," Saunders said.

Saunders said he hated losing but he learned from his losses and didn't let that hold him back. He used each loss as a form of motivation to try harder. This all stemmed back to that first match in the state championship.

"Never giving up on your dreams and try harder, strive for perfection," Saunders said. "That is what it really comes down to at the end of the day. It is 100 percent focus. That is all I did. I essentially woke up in the morning and planned my day accordingly to how many workouts were going to be a part of my training regime. When you get to an elite level you truly have to have a different level of focus and it comes from that inner desire to never say 'I'm quitting. I am striving for what I truly believe in.'"

His belief was that he would not only become the best wrestler in the 150-pound weight class and an Olympian, but in the end would stand on the podium representing the United States of America. These two dreams came true for Saunders.

He won the 1987 NCAA Division II National Championship at Cal State Bakersfield. He was a two-time All-American (1989-90), two-time Pac-10 champion and amassed an overall record of 77-9 at Arizona State. He then turned professional and won two gold medals (1991 Havana and 1995 Mar del Plata) at the Pan American Games.

"I won the outstanding wrestler (award) my senior year in the Pac-10 Championships," Saunders said. "In my weight class (150 lbs), I was matched up with my old college roommate at Cal State Bakersfield. I had to beat him to win the championship."

For all of his efforts and accomplishment Saunders was rewarded with one of the best individual honors an athlete can receive, an induction into Arizona State University's Hall of Fame.

"I remember when I was going to school there as an athlete there 20 years ago, they had their basketball arena called Wells Fargo Arena. It is a big circle and as you walk around the upper deck, there were wall plaques of all of their Hall of Famers," Saunders said.

"I remember seeing all those pictures of all of those individuals and looking at the names of the wrestlers in particular and being inspired by them. I had no idea that one day my name would be going up on that wall by them."

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