Grant Keltner

Rick Sanders

Rick Sanders

As a kid, I was always fascinated with the history of the local legends that came out of the neighborhood. I loved athletics and played sports in grade school and while attending Lincoln High.

I was named to the Oregon All State high school soccer team in 1975 and went back to coach at Lincoln for six years. I’ve been proud to be a part of some great teams and to have played with some great athletes. I’ve won seven city championships in the high school ranks while playing and coaching soccer, played in two state final four high school championships, coached in another, and played soccer for the University of Oregon.

There are several sports legends that came out of Northwest Portland. Johnny Pesky grew up in the area and played for the Boston Red Sox. The right field foul pole in Fenway Park is named after him. I played at Wallace Park as a kid. Frank Lolich ran the park for many years. His son Mickey Lolich was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. Mickey won three games and was named the M.V.P. of the 1968 World Series.

You can argue about the most famous athlete to come out of Northwest Portland. In my mind the most famous athlete out of the area, or for that matter the state of Oregon, was the Olympic wrestler Rick Sanders.

Rick Sanders lived in an older run down part of Northwest Portland, in an area located off of Vaughn Street. The family struggled to keep food on the table, literally not knowing from day to day where the next meal would come from. He had a reputation of being very quick for his size, very strong for his age, and not very tall. He didn’t weigh much as a kid. Legend has it, he was an all-around natural athlete.

Out of grade school, Rick attended Lincoln High School. He was encouraged to try out for the wrestling team. It was the start of a magical ride with the sport of wrestling for Rick. He went 80 and 1 in the four years that he wrestled in high school. Rick won three Oregon state championships wrestling for Lincoln High School.

According to Wikipedia, after graduating, he received a scholarship to attend Portland State University. When Rick arrived at Portland State University, he quickly led his team to national prominence. As a freshman, he highlighted an undefeated season by winning the 1965 NAIA National Championships at 115 pounds and earning the Outstanding Wrestler Award.

As a sophomore, Rick lost the first match of his career when he moved up to the 123 pound class and placed third in the NCAA College Division Nationals. Two weeks later, he dropped down to the 115 pound class and won the 1966 NCAA University Division National Championship.

As a junior, Rick had a perfect season going undefeated and winning both the 1967 NCAA College and University Division National Championships at 115 pounds. He was selected as the Outstanding Wrestler in both meets.

As a senior, Rick moved up to the 123 pound class and went undefeated during the regular season. He won his second NCAA College Division National Championship and was again selected as the Outstanding Wrestler. Two weeks later at the NCAA University Division Nationals, Rick lost for only the second time in his collegiate career when he placed second. His total collegiate record was 103-2. He led his Portland State team to a first place finish in the 1967 NCAA College Division Nationals, a second place finish in 1968, and a third place finish in 1967. The same three years Portland State also finished fifth, sixth, and eighth in the NCAA University Division Nationals. Rick is the only collegiate wrestler to win National Championships in the NAIA, NCAA College Division, and the NCAA University Division, and to be Outstanding Wrestler in each.

Sanders’ trademark was his ability to shock everyone, from coaches to foes to the fans, with unorthodox training and unorthodox moves on the mat. He loved to find himself in a predicament and then work his way out of it. Surprise delighted Sanders.

“He learned not to just squirm out of trouble, but to turn it into stunning reversals of fortune. He concocted imaginative, improvable theories.” Don Behm, later one of Sanders’s fiercest rivals but closest friends, remembers in particular Sanders “Contraction and Expansion Theory,” a belief that his hips worked in tandem through a countervailing tendency to shrink and enlarge.”

As early as his freshman year in college, in 1965, Rick won his first of five national freestyle championships and made the U.S. World Team. In 1966 he placed third in the World Championships. In 1967, he placed second in the World, and won the Pan American Games.

In 1968, Rick won an Olympic Silver Medal for the USA. A year later, at 114.5 pounds, Rick became the first American ever to win a World Championship. He returned to the Olympics in 1972 and captured another Silver Medal. Of the eleven bouts, he won two Olympics medals, nine bouts were won by fall.

Through all his success, Sanders was considered a maverick of the first order. He was an athlete who always seemed on or near the edge. He wore his hair long before it was fashionable and sported a beard. He liked to pose for photos with beads around his neck. Stories of his escapades are legendary. He once boarded a 747 jet and proceeded to run up and down the aisle in his sweat clothes, trying to cut weight.

However, there was also another side to Sanders. He loved to talk wrestling and often gave free clinics for youth, anywhere he could find them assembled. Wrestling was his life. It was, his older sister explained once, “in his soul.” He recognized that he was marching to the beat of a different drummer than the rest, and reveled in it.

“Sure, our lifestyles are different, and so are our wrestling styles,” he said about comparisons between himself and Dan Gable at the Munich Olympics. “Most Americans don’t have style. Me, I’m a cosmopolite. I can wrestle like a Japanese, a Rumanian, or a Russian. I used to work hard all the time. But as you get older, you don’t work as hard.” Rick was the only man to ever shut out the famous Dan Gable in a match.

On October 18th, after competing in the 1972 Olympics, Rick Sanders was killed in an automobile accident in Yugoslavia while touring Europe. It was such a shock to those that followed him.

According to his sister, “His life was like a meteor. He burned brightly through his life.”

6 Responses to Rick Sanders

  1. Robert Barncord says:

    Thanks for the great article about Rick. I was his classmate at Shattuck and also 4 years at Lincoln. We met, remarkably, on a jet plane in the fall of 1967, either going to or coming from Frankfurt. We b.s.-ed about our lives, and he was obsessed with keeping his weight down. I didn’t know about all the awards and championships he had won. He and I were both from the “wrong side of the tracks”, and little guys. My annecdote: I went out for wrestling at Lincoln freshman year, and Rick and I were both in the 98lb class, so I had to practice with him – until he got moved up to varsity. I’m sure I was quite comical, tied up lika a pretzel.

  2. Aaron Jones says:

    I grew up in Northwest Portland as well, during the same time as Rick Sanders, but didn’t meet him until college when several of my friends were on the PSU team. We visited with Rick at a pizza place near PSU on occasion, and his girl friend, Dotty, was usually there as well. In those days (1964-65) Rick wasn’t into the long hair or beard yet, just hard work and wrestling. He was a very nice fellow and I agree he was one of Oregon’s all-time greatest athletes. If it weren’t for “Pre” I would name Rick as number one, but either way he was the first internationally famous athlete from Oregon and the first “rebel with a cause” (Pre was, too, both rebel and world class). What great memories they both left us with.
    In addition, I remember some Keltners in the neighborhood when I grew up … some tough kids, as I recall … but that was Southeast Portland where I lived after moving from the Vaughn Street area.
    Thanks for the memories … Aaron, Class of ’63, CHS

    • grantkel says:

      Hello –

      Yes I grew up in N.W. Portland, didn’t know of any Keltner in S.E., I was pretty tame….

      Yes, He was an amazing athlete, I think his story would be great in the movies…..


  3. Gary lathrop says:

    I wrestled with Rick at Lincoln High school and also lived in NW Portland, on the poor side. I followed his career all the way to the end.

    Thanks, Gary

  4. David Henry says:

    I also grew up with Rick and attended Shattuck. We both had paper routes then, I the Oregonian and he the Journal. After HS I was drafted out of college due to not getting full time status. I met Rick years later at Portland State in 1969, fortunate to make it out of Viet Nam. He and I remained good friends and I look back now and followed his career. Nice story you put together.

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