Gardner leaves shoes, legacy behind

Updated: August 25, 2004, 11:19 PM ET
By Sherry Skalko | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- Rulon Gardner wasn't going to let go of Sajad Barzi. With the 6-foot-5 Iranian firmly in his grasp, Gardner used every ounce of his 265-pound frame to drive the Iranian face down into the mat. As Barzi got up and approached the referee about the call, Gardner began untying the top of his shoelaces.

Rulon Gardner
An emotional Rulon Gardner prepares to leave his shoes on the mat -- a symbol of retirement.

After the referee raised Gardner's hand in victory -- first to one side of the arena, then to the other -- Gardner grabbed an American flag, wiped away tears and parked himself in the middle of Mat B like "a 33-year-old kid" and took off his size 13 shoes. First the right one, the one that contains the constant reminder of the snow-mobiling accident that almost took his life two years ago, then the left.

Then the super heavyweight bronze medalist stood up, bowed his head at each side of the mat and walked off, leaving his shoes behind, a wrestler's signal that he had fought his final bout.

This is the place where Greco-Roman wrestling was born. It was fitting that this is where Rulon Gardner decided to say goodbye.

"To leave them on the mat meant I left everything on the mat as a wrestler," Gardner said.

No one would have thought otherwise. Gardner leaves the sport as the most decorated American, with two Olympic medals and a world title.

The Midwest born and bred Gardner became an Olympic celebrity four years ago in Sydney when he staged the greatest upset in wrestling history by handing Russian great Alexander Karelin his first international loss in 13 years. Karelin retired after the 2000 Games, and many thought Gardner should, too. After all, what was there left to prove?

That he was better than Karelin, a 12-time world champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist? Hardly.

That it wasn't a fluke? Sort of.

That he deserved his own place in the history of the sport? Definitely.

Gardner might not have successfully defended the title he stole from Karelin, but by winning the bronze in Athens after the adversity he faced during the past two years he proved his mettle as a champion.

Gardner remained on the top of the Greco-Roman world after his historical victory, winning the 2001 World Championship with what his coach Steve Fraser regards as his best performance ever.

"He beat the new Russian superstar," Fraser recalled. "He had the toughest draw. He was down 3-0 with a minute to go, came back, threw the guy and pinned him. As a coach, that was my most impressive moment ever. It topped the Karelin victory for sure, and that was in the quarterfinals. He had to beat the Bulgarian and the Hugarian to win it."

That was the last time Gardner wrestled internationally for almost two years.

In February 2002, two months after winning worlds, Gardner was snow-mobiling when he became lost and was stranded overnight on a mountainside in sub-zero temperatures. He suffered severe frostbite from the tips of his toes to the balls of his feet. Doctors initially thought he would lose both of his feet and never walk again. Gardner might have been lucky just to be alive, and yet he was able to save all but the middle toe on his right foot because of the grit and determination he developed as a wrestler.

In late October, Gardner returned to the mat a different wrestler. The frostbite had robbed much of the feeling from his feet and the loss of his toe affected his balance. He spent months tweaking his style to compensate for the injury, but the inability to correctly gauge leverage and pressure on an opponent left him vulnerable.

It's what Georgiy Tsurtsumia of Kazakstan exploited in the semifinals when he beat Gardner, 4-1, on Tuesday, ending his quest for another gold medal.

"I couldn't feel what was going on with my feet," Gardner said. "I can't sense every minute detail of what my toes are telling me, having lost a little bit of the function and knowing what they're at. That's somewhat limited me, but I've compensated by being in better position and being stronger."

Gardner competed in his first international meet 10 months after his accident, finishing first at the 2003 Pan American games. But a chance to defend his Olympic title looked like a long shot two months later when he finished 10th at the World Championships. His odds took a turn for the worst in April when he dislocated his right wrist playing pickup basketball. The injury occurred days after he suffered a case of road rash in a motorcycle accident and three days before the U.S. nationals.

Just as there are no shortcuts in life, there are no shortcuts in wrestling. Only one wrestler can represent his country in each weight class in the Olympics, so to be the best in the world a wrestler has to beat the best in his country. In the United States, that title belonged to Gardner's good friend Dremiel Byers, the 2002 World Champion.

Gardner's wrist popped out of its socket seven times during the national meet, yet he was still able to reach the finals, where he lost to Byers in the final 30 seconds after leading most of the bout. The pair met again a month later at the Olympic trials, and Gardner prevailed in a pair of tight 2-1 overtime victories.

Byers set his pride aside and agreed to serve as Gardner's training partner before and during the Olympics. He's now expected to take Gardner's place as the top American on the super heavyweight stage.

"He [Byers] can do some things that Rulon can't do," Fraser said. "But I guarantee you the reason Rulon has performed so well since Karelin is because of Byers."

Gardner didn't leave his legacy only on the mat; he left it on the U.S. national program, as well, by setting a standard that other wrestlers follow.

"Rulon is a great leader," Fraser said. "Heavyweights don't traditionally work as hard as others. Not in Rulon's case.

That guy works harder than any 55-kilo guy I've ever seen."

Moments before his final match, Gardner and his coaches fought back their emotions while waiting to be introduced and led out onto the floor. Once the match was over and Fraser had retrieved Gardner's shoes, the men buried their faces in each other's shoulders.

"I'm going to be sad because I'm going to miss him," Fraser said, his voice cracking and his eyes welling up with tears. "But I'm happy for him because he's done such a great job for himself and our sport."

Gardner, who has done some motivational speaking, isn't sure about his future other than creating a home in Utah with his new wife.

"Today I was a wrestler," Gardner said. "Tomorrow, I'll be a husband, hopefully a good one."

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