U.S. wrestler upsets Russian Goliath

Miracle worker

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- Lake Placid becomes Sydney. A sheet of ice yields to a shiny rubber mat. One magical night it is a group of thrown-together college hockey kids; 20 years later it is the Wyoming farm boy they once called Fatso.

Rulon Gardner, this is your miracle.

Gardner, an excellent wrestler but one never good enough to win an NCAA or world medal, pulled off the greatest upset in Olympic wrestling history Wednesday by beating Alexander Karelin 1-0 for the Greco-Roman super heavyweight gold medal.

The Alexander Karelin. The man who at age 33 had never lost in international wrestling, a streak of more than 200 matches. The man who had allowed one point in 10 years.

''He is the best wrestler in the history of wrestling,'' U.S. national Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser said.

But on what was to have been his night of nights, his coronation as a four-time gold medalist, the greatest couldn't beat Rulon Gardner, who finally got tired of being teased and tormented by the schoolyard bully.

Impossibly, incredibly, illogically, it happened.

This time it was Karelin, one of the most famous men in Russia, a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who quit with a few seconds left -- just as two former Olympic finalists had quit against him.

''To be realistic, I didn't think I could actually beat him,'' said Gardner, 29. ''The Olympic gold medal was so far away from what I thought I could do in my life. You say, 'Yeah, I can beat him.' But so many people in so many hundreds of matches have thought that, then they go out and he basically crushes them.''

This miracle on the mat may never be viewed alongside the Miracle on Ice by the U.S. hockey team over the Soviet Union dynasty in 1980. But there have been few more improbable upsets in Olympic history.

In wrestling, Karelin was the '27 Yankees and the '70s Steelers and the '60 Celtics rolled into one, a man so universally feared and admired that no one thought he could possibly lose to -- what's his name, Rulon Gardner?

''I was walking around before and nobody was even looking at me. I don't think they even knew who I was,'' Gardner said. ''When he came out, it was, 'Ohhh, Karelin.' Henry Kissinger was here to see him. Mr. (Juan Antonio) Samaranch.

''At least now some big people know who I am.''

Including one named Karelin, who had beaten Gardner once before -- throwing him on his face three times -- and who had talked with him at a tournament in 1997, but almost didn't seem to recognize him.

''I was just so excited before it started,'' said Gardner, who best finish for Nebraska in an NCAA tournament was fourth in 1993. ''I was so nervous.

''You have to understand that when you're wrestling him, you're not just worried about winning, you're worried about surviving. He's so strong that if you're not careful, he can really hurt you.''

Of course, Gardner is used to that. Before he filled out, before he grew strong baling hay, loading sick calves on his shoulders, and carrying heavy pails of milk on his family dairy farm, he was teased about his size.

Think any of those bullies might want to skip the next class reunion at Star Valley High School near Afton, Wyo.?

''I used those insults as motivation. And I still do,'' said Gardner, the youngest of nine children of Mormon parents who weren't rich yet saw each child graduate from college.

Maybe that's why Gardner wasn't intimidated by Karelin -- wary, for sure, but not fearful -- and wouldn't allow himself to be pushed around by the man so strong he once carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs.

Karelin, whose throwing skills are so renowned that a lift is named for him, tried to throw Gardner repeatedly in the first three minutes but couldn't. Gardner stayed chest-to-chest, shoulder-to-shoulder, never letting Karelin get leverage or a chance to toss him for points.

The key moment came after the first period. If it is scoreless, the wrestlers begin the second period with a clinch and must remain locked until one executes a scoring move or releases his lock.

As the two yanked each other to the side of the mat 30 seconds into the period, Gardner kept his hands clinched, but Karelin's slipped apart. It was a point for Gardner -- one of the few Karelin has ever allowed.

''He had a great lock on me, and another three or four inches I would have let it slip,'' Gardner said. ''But I always wrestle kind of unorthodox, and our feet got tangled and I got under him. Maybe it confused him. But I said to myself 'He broke' and I got the point.''

He didn't know it, but he had broken Karelin, who tried to generate some offense but, wrestling his third match of the day, seemed to wear out as the seconds ticked away.

Then, all of a sudden, it was over, with Karelin mumbling a few words in Russian.

''I don't know what he said, but I think I was, 'I give up,' '' Gardner said.

Who in wrestling ever thought he would hear those words?

On the victory stand, Karelin couldn't wait to leave, halfheartedly accepting Gardner's invitation to stand beside him, one foot remaining firmly planted where the silver medalist stands.

''The Olympics bring out great things in you,'' Gardner said. ''For me to beat Karelin, it's one of those things where I say to myself, 'I didn't just beat him, did I?' ''

Now, the man once called the perfect wrestler will always have a slight flaw. A loss on his record. A little less immortality.

''I told him, and I hope he understood, that, 'You will always be the best. You will always be the one that I will look up to. You will always be the one everybody looks up to,'' Gardner said.

''But I think he knows who I am now.''



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