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Gardner finally healthy as he tries for repeat

7/15/2004

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.
Other stories to watch:

  • Kerry McCoy, a freestyle heavyweight who was fifth in Sydney,
    looks to avenge a 2003 world championships finals loss to Artur
    Taymazov of Uzbekistan. The favorite at 264½ pounds is Russia's
    David Musulbes, the defending gold medalist and a two-time world
    champion since Sydney.

  • Armen Nazarian of Bulgaria goes for his third consecutive gold
    medal and at his third weight class, this time at 132 pounds (60
    kg). He would become only the fifth wrestler to win three golds.
    Also going for a third consecutive gold is Turkey's Hamza
    Yerlikaya, but he has finished only ninth, sixth and seventh in the
    last three Greco-Roman world championships after winning in Sydney
    at 187 pounds (85 kg).

  • Eldari Kurtanidze of Georgia is a two-time defending world
    champion who badly wants to win a gold at 211½ pounds (96 kg) after
    settling for bronze medals in the last two Olympics.

  • Bouvaisa Saitiev, Adam's brother, looks to repeat the gold
    medal he won in 1996 but was denied in 2000 by an upset loss to
    eventual champion Brandon Slay of the United States. It was
    Saitiev's only loss in the championship bracket of a major
    international tournament since 1995; the five-time world champion
    has since won two more world titles.

  • Is this finally super heavyweight Mihaly Deak-Bardos' time to
    win an Olympic gold? A three-time Greco-Roman world silver medalist
    from Hungary, he never could defeat Karelin. Then after Karelin's
    retirement, he lost to Gardner (2001) and Byers (2002) in world
    championships.