Wrestler Reflects on Win Over Karelin

ByAlan Robinson

S Y D N E Y, Australia, Sept. 28, 2000 -- Rulon Gardner, seemingly destined to beAmerica’s most improbable star of the Sydney Olympics, celebratedthe night of his life at Michael Johnson’s birthday party — asurprise guest in every sense of the word.

When Gardner left home in Colorado Springs for the Olympics, fewknew this Greco-Roman wrestler with the 54-inch chest and anindefatigable work ethic built on endless hours of labor at hisfamily’s dairy farm.

But when Gardner goes home, he may be in for a surprise nearlyas big as his 1-0 victory over the supposedly unbeatable man ofwrestling, three-time Olympic champion Alexander Karelin of Russia.

The whole nation is going to know, or at least will think itdoes, this 29-year-old with a sharp mind and a pleasant dispositionthat isn’t quite “aw, shucks” but is refreshingly real. The manwho now wears the gold that everybody had conceded to Karelin.

Biggest Upset in the Sport

The man who spoiled Karelin’s tomorrow, then found himself onToday, talking to a country eager to know much more abouthim.

“Even though I didn’t think I was going to win, I was going towork as hard as I could,” Gardner said. “If I didn’t win, fine.But if I did, well, it’s just incredible.”

For those in wrestling, it wasn’t difficult to put Gardner’supset into perspective: it was the biggest in the history of thesport.

Karelin was unbeaten in international competition, a man who hadlost only once, as a 19-year-old in the 1987 Soviet championships.A man who gives up a point every decade or so.

Gardner’s upset landed him an invitation to Johnson’s birthdayparty at Planet Hollywood on Wednesday night — and it possiblyruined Karelin’s retirement party.

Studying a Champion

Karelin was expected to wrestle his way through an unbeaten,unscored-upon tournament as always, get his fourth gold medal fromIOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and retire comfortably to hisjob as a Russian colonel and a member of parliament.

Now, the man seen as the perfect wrestler — impossible to beat,nearly impossible to score upon — cannot win four golds in a roweven if wins in Athens in 2004.

Karelin, 33, said nothing about his plans — or, for that matter,anything else. His only known words were a few mumbled in Russianto Gardner at the end of the match.

And while Gardner didn’t quite believe the moment until ithappened, he realized long ago it was possible. He and U.S. coachesDan Chandler, Steve Fraser and Rob Hermann studied tapes of Karelinthat showed him slower than before, of being less capable ofhitting his famed reverse body lift and other scoring moves. Attimes, he even looked slow and tired.

“Look at his scores,” said Fraser, who, with Jeff Blatnick,won the only previous U.S. Greco-Roman gold medals, both in 1984.“They’re 1-0 and 2-0.”

Their great hope, of course, was that Gardner could somehow geta point and force Karelin to wrestle from behind — something hehadn’t done in over a decade, especially not in his third match ina day.

Gardner got that point when Karelin broke his hands on a clinchearly in the second period, the point American silver medalist MattGhaffari could not get in his 1-0 overtime loss to Karelin inAtlanta in 1996.

Dairy Farming Gave Him Strength

With the lead, Gardner could use his strength and stamina hebuilt up during years on Reed and Virginia Gardner’s dairy farm inAfton, Wyo., milking cows in subzero weather, then liftingfrozen-cold bales of hay to feed them. Not a hardscrabble life, forsure, but also not an easy one.

“I know it’s cold in Siberia [Karelin’s home] but it can get to40 below where I grew up, too,” Gardner said. “I don’t know if itcan get that much colder even in Siberia.”

Maybe that’s why Reed Gardner never feared that even Karelin,the great Karelin, could wear down his son. Not this night, not anynight.

“It’s twice a day, 365 days a year, 730 times a year, milkingthe cows and taking care of them,” said 70-year-old Gardner, thefather of nine college graduates. “There are no days off in thedairy business. He had his jobs to do and he did them, every day.He would go to football practice or wrestling practice [at StarValley High School], then come home and do his work.”

Even if, at the time, Rulon Gardner cursed his fate as being theyoungest of the nine, with no one left at home to help thisall-state football player and wrestler with the daily chores.

“I would go out, as a kid, and I could barely pick up a bale ofhay,” he said. “By the time my senior year came around, I wasgrabbing four bales of hay at a time, each 100 pounds. Justgrabbing them and walking with them and seeing how physicallystrong I could be.

“The reason I think I won is because I work harder than anyoneelse, train harder. And every day I live my life, I do everything Ineed to do to put my life in order.”

Gardner doesn’t know where this upset of upsets will take him.He planned to go to Athens in 2004, but that might not be necessarynow. He is certified to teach school, just as his wife, Stacy,does. He has no idea how much money he will make from the ninebiggest minutes of his life.

“I don’t know how big a deal this is,” he said. “All I knowis that I did tonight what I always try to do, go out and win amatch. It’s personal satisfaction knowing I did it. But this isn’tmy ultimate goal.

“My ultimate goal is to know that I can do the best that I can.I don’t think money or this can give you happiness. You have tofind happiness from doing your work.”

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