Gardner keeps beating adversity -- and opponents -- in second gold quest
Posted: Tuesday August 24, 2004 3:38PM; Updated: Tuesday August 24, 2004 4:06PM
America's Teddy Bear returned to the Olympic wrestling mat on Tuesday, 22 pounds and one toe lighter than he was in Sydney. The weight loss was mandated by changes in the limits for heavyweights. The middle toe on his right foot was sacrificed to Mother Nature.
Rulon Gardner keeps the digit -- lost to frostbite in 2002 when he was stranded after a snowmobile accident -- Eleanor Rigby-like in a jar of formaldehyde in his refrigerator. He has vowed to bury it in a ceremony in his Colorado backyard after he returns from the Games, a symbolical ending to that period of his life.
The point is, ask the defending Olympic Greco-Roman gold medalist, "Hey, Rulon, what's new?" at your peril.
If Russian legend Alexander Karelin had not lost his grip for an instant four years ago in the final in Sydney -- the glowering Karelin had last been beaten in the time of the Czars -- then Gardner might not have been able to get his grip on the American imagination. Gardner won in a colossal upset, touching off a lovefest with this voluble man that is unknown in the history of USA wrestling.
Indeed, Gardner has been embraced like few American Olympic athletes, who mostly linger in the shadow for a quadrennium before being rediscovered on network TV. Gardner went away after Sydney, but he never really was gone. His is the oft-told -- and probably best told -- story among American athletes in Athens but in case you came in real late, here's the deal: He almost died in the accident 2 1/2 years ago when his snowmobile fell into a Wyoming lake. (He was saved by a search-and-rescue plane and later would need four operations on his foot.) He had a head-on collision on his motorcycle last spring at 30 miles per hour, escaping with only some scratches and bruises. Then he dislocated his right wrist a few days later during a pick-up basketball game, which ultimately required more surgery. (He had three pins inserted to stabilize the wrist and then had them removed before the Olympic trials.)
Then he upset former world champion Dremiel Byers to make the U.S. team, taking Byers on as a training partner this summer and vowing to give his fellow heavyweight his entire bonus if he wins gold in Athens. According to an American official, that would be $25,000 from the USOC and $15,000 from USA Wrestling -- a $40,000 reward to Byers for whomping on Gardner every day in training. If Gardner wins a silver or a bronze, he will split any bonuses. Gardner reiterated his pledge after the first two bouts Tuesday, praising the diligence of his training partner.
Clearly this is not a case of Byers remorse.
And it surely appears that there will be something in the kitty when Greco-Roman wrestling -- and Gardner's career -- ends Wednesday night. He barged into the semifinals in a pool of wrestling talent that was more daunting than some of the cupcakes he faced early in Sydney, winning all three matches. He was pressed only in his second bout against a hardy Bulgarian, 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Sergei Moreyko. Moreyko took him to extra time and came within a hair of exposing Gardner's back to the mat a minute into the additional period -- a move that, if successful, would have ended the match.
The American resisted. Gardner later said he was thinking, "I'm going to punch my way through this match and destroy him and win this match ... My career is not done today." The farm boy was going to wrestle until the cows came home. Gardner not only won the match, he won the war. When Moreyko left the mat, he had a nasty scrape on his chin and was bleeding through the bandage on his forehead that covered a wound from an early, inadvertent head butt. Later that night, with Karelin in the crowd, Gardner handled Marek Mikulski of Poland with a preternatural patience.
"At the Olympics it's easy to get flustered." U.S. coach Steve Fraser said. "I just noticed today he's been very relaxed. In the past he's gotten a little uptight. This has been a good thing."
And Gardner has been a good thing for the U.S. He beat Karelin. He beat amputation. And he beat a Lithuanian, Bulgarian and a Pole.