SYDNEY, Australia (AP) — Rulon Gardner did the unthinkable. He beat the unbeatable. He proved that Alexander Karelin isn’t perfect — and he won a gold medal that virtually nobody in the world thought he could win. Gardner, never an NCAA champion, never a world medalist, ended Karelin’s string of three Olympic gold medals and 13-year unbeaten streak by winning the Olympic super heavyweight wrestling gold medal 1-0 Wednesday. Miracle on ice? This was the miracle on the mat. “When did I think I could beat him? About 10 minutes ago,” Gardner said. “I kept saying, `I think I can. I think I can.’ But it wasn’t until it was over that I knew I could.” Karelin is universally considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, a man who had never lost in international competition, who had not been scored upon in 10 years.
And Gardner beat him, stunning a crowd that included IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who had come to present Karelin with his fourth gold medal — the medal he wouldn’t get. “What does this mean? He just beat the best wrestler in the history of wrestling — a wrestler who had never been beaten,” U.S. national Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser said. The upset was so stunning that virtually no one in the crowd in the Sydney Exhibition Hall, outside of Gardner’s immediate family, could believe it. Nor could Karelin, who, Gardner said, “mumbled a few words at me in Russian toward the end. I don’t know what he said, but I think I was, `I give up.’ ” Karelin said less than that after the match, declining to talk to reporters.
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The Russian’s gold medal was seen as a lock. As big a lock as the Soviet Union was to beat a bunch of U.S. collegians in hockey in 1980. This upset certainly was comparable — Gardner, whose best finish ever in world competition was a fifth place, somehow beating a man so feared that two prior Olympic finalists essentially quit on the mat rather than keep absorbing a pounding. “He’s so big and nasty, it’s like a horse pushing you,” Gardner said. “I’m not as strong as him — not even close. I knew if I let him push me around, get even two or three points on me, it was over.” Gardner, who walked on to the Nebraska football team but quit to wrestle full time, said beforehand that he had a strategy to counter Karelin’s dreaded lifts and relentless pressure. That he even expected to “have some fun with Karelin.” Gardner, his chest spilling out of his tight blue U.S.
singlet, proved early that he wouldn’t be outmuscled by a man whose last loss of any kind came in the 1987 Soviet championships. Karelin, whose throwing skills are so renowned that he has a lift named for him, tried to throw Gardner around in the first two 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 scoreless three minutes. At that point, 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 powered each other to the side of the mat, Gardner managed to keep his hands clinched, but Karelin’s slipped apart. After watching a replay, the mat judges confirmed Karelin’s hands had separated.
The score went up: 1-0, Gardner — the first deficit Karelin had faced since the 1988 Olympic finals. “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.” Matt Ghaffari of the United States never could get that one point in 1996, losing in overtime to Karelin 1-0. Gardner, who beat Ghaffari in the U.S.
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trials, now had the point, and he could dictate the action. “His junior college coach once told him, `You’re in great shape. When you get into overtime, you shouldn’t lose,’ ” said Reed Gardner, Rulon’s father. “He’s always remembered that. He almost never loses in overtime.” Karelin seemed to tire as the nine-minute mark approached, taking fewer and fewer scoring chances, realizing what was about to happen. Finally, with about eight seconds left, the truly impossible happened. He quit wrestling, dropped his hands and conceded the first international defeat he had ever sustained.
“But I wasn’t going to come out of my stance,” Gardner said. “As soon as I do that, he could come at me and try to throw me and who knows what the judges would do? But if he did that as a sign of respect, I appreciate it.” The 29-year-old Gardner, who took to the mat wearing a T-shirt signed by friends back home in Afton, Wyo. — including race car driver Richard Petty — had an advantage in that he was wrestling only his second match of the day. It was the 33-year-old Karelin’s third. “It was 6,900 feet above sea level where I grew up, and I pride myself on being in shape,” Gardner said. “The coaches kept saying, `He’s tired.
He’s mentally tired,’ but I didn’t listen to them. I couldn’t. If you let up for one second, he can throw you.” Karelin is so strong that he once carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs rather than ask for help, but, on this night, supposedly his night of nights, he didn’t have the strength to win. Gardner did. He grew up as the youngest of nine children on a dairy farm, weighing 125 pounds by fourth grade, teased by kids about his shape and called “Fatso.” But he also grew strong, able to lift four milk buckets at a single time or a sick calf on his shoulder. He was all-state in football and wrestled on a Star Valley High School team that won eight consecutive state championships. “I don’t think they would call him names today,”’ his dad said. Gardner said his childhood “was kind of tough” because of the teasing, but, “I used it those insults as motivation.” And — miracle of miracles — he’s got a gold medal to prove it. U.S.
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Greco-Roman wrestlers, usually the junior varsity compared to the medal-winning freestylers, pulled off two remarkable upsets in Sydney. Garrett Lowney, a 20-year-old from Minnesota wrestling in his first international competition, beat five-time world champion Gogui Koguachvili of Russia at 213 3/4 pounds and got the bronze. Karelin and Koguachvili were the two biggest favorites in Greco-Roman. Matt Lindland, whose court fight to make the team wound up in the Supreme Court, also surprisingly won a silver medal. Also Wednesday, Armen Nazarian, the 1996 silver medalist from Bulgaria, tackled his coach and did a backflip after pinning 1999 world champion Kim In-sub of Korea in 2:34 at 127 3/4 pounds (58 kg).
Every gold medalist to follow also did a flip — even Gardner, who managed to nearly complete it.