Gardner finally healthy as he tries for repeat
Rulon Gardner isn't worried this time about the invulnerable Alexander Karelin, the near-mythical Russian giant who had never lost an international wrestling match and certainly wasn't supposed to lose to Gardner in the 2000 Olympics.
No, Gardner's biggest worry going into the Athens Olympics and adding another Greco-Roman wrestling gold medal to the one he was never supposed to win in Sydney just might be ... Rulon Gardner?
Just as it has been almost since the second he stepped off the mat in Sydney after achieving one of the biggest upsets in any sport in any Olympic Games, keeping Rulon Gardner healthy has been a full-time job.
There was the near-tragic snowmobiling misadventure in 2002 that left him with a severe case of frostbite, cost him a toe and, nearly, his career. The helmet-less motorcycle crash this year that tossed him 30 feet in the air also could have been a disaster. The right wrist injury that occurred during a pickup basketball game three days later was so severe he twice dislocated it just shaking hands.
No wonder his very first thought after beating former world champion and U.S. national champion Dremiel Byers in two straight matches during the U.S. Olympic trials finals was, "Don't hurt yourself.''
Gardner's physical setbacks have been so career disrupting, he considers his return to the Olympics to be nearly as big an accomplishment as his "Miracle on the Mat'' upset of Karelin, who is universally considered the greatest wrestler of all time.
"I thought it was virtually impossible,'' said Gardner, who will be among the favorites at 264½ pounds. "Now, I probably have five matches left in my career and I will give everything I have to those five matches.''
Gardner can do something only three American wrestlers have accomplished by winning a second Olympic gold medal; John Smith (1988, 1992), Bruce Baumgartner (1984, 1992) and George Mehnert (1904, 1908) previously did it. The other three were freestyle wrestlers, so Gardner would be the first American Greco-Roman wrestler to accomplish it.
While Gardner's pursuit of a second gold will be one of the most-closely watched American story lines in Athens, there are others, too, including Cael Sanderson's first try at an Olympic medal.
Sanderson is the only college wrestler to go undefeated in a career (159-0 at Iowa State) and win four NCAA titles. But while the 25-year-old Sanderson was a silver medalist in last year's world championships at 185 pounds (84 kg), he has yet to achieve a breakthrough victory on the international stage.
Sanderson has shown he can beat the top wrestlers; he defeated 2000 Olympic champion Adam Saitiev of Russia in an international tournament in March. Still, Sanderson understands that winning gold often takes just the right combination of opponents, timing and good luck.
The now-retired Cary Kolat, a two-time NCAA champion and arguably the greatest U.S. high school wrestler ever, is a perfect example. His international career was one misfortune after another marked by a series of on-the-mat victories reversed by questionable post-match appeals.
"The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' said Sanderson, who, like Gardner, came back to make the U.S. team despite losing in the national championships in April. "It's crazy because I've been dreaming about it for years and years.''
The Athens Games will mark the debut of Olympic women's wrestling, and the United States has a quality team that could contend for medals in all four weight classes. Patricia Miranda (105½ pounds, 48 kg) and Toccara Montgomery (158½ pounds, 72 kg) are gold-medal possibilities, though Montgomery might have to beat perhaps the best women's wrestler in the world, five-time world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan.
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Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press