ATHENS, Greece -- He left his shoes in the middle of the
mat, maybe a piece of his heart, too. Rulon Gardner finally let his
emotions out after trading Olympic gold for bronze, and the tears
he cried weren't of sadness.
Gardner, so poised and dispassionate hours before, following the
biggest loss of his life, became teary-eyed Wednesday after one of
the most surprising gold medalists in Olympic history settled for a
bronze on his return trip to the games.
His last one, too. After wearing down Iran's much-taller Sajad
Barzi for a 3-0 victory and the Greco-Roman wrestling bronze at
264½ pounds, Gardner sat down on the mat, an American flag draped
in his arms, and took off his shoes in the traditional sign of
Then it all came out. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he
carried the flag around the arena, escorted by the unmistakable
cheers of a dozen family members who made the long trip from Afton,
Wyo., to Athens to see if he was good for one more gold.
He wasn't, but he thought he was good enough -- even if a 4-1
overtime loss to Kazakhstan's Georgi Tsurtsumia earlier meant he
couldn't duplicate the gold he won so shockingly in Sydney by
beating the greatest wrestler ever, Russian Alexander Karelin, in
his sport's upset of the century.
"I came back and won a medal. Even though it's bronze, I have
no regrets because I gave 100 percent in every match,'' Gardner
said. "I didn't leave anything on the mat.''
Except his shoes, of course; he began crying before the match,
when he told coach Steve Fraser of his plans.
"That's it,'' Gardner said. "When you step off the mat for the
last time, it's a big deal.''
His retirement ends an impossible-to-script career that saw
Gardner become one of America's most improbable sports stars -- and
one of its most star-crossed once he won the gold.
Eighteen months after ending three-time Olympic champion
Karelin's 13-year winning streak with his "Miracle on the Mat,''
Gardner lost a toe -- and nearly his life -- to frostbite after
becoming stranded in the Wyoming wilderness. This year, he survived
a head-on motorcycle crash and, days later, badly dislocated his
right wrist during a pickup basketball game, briefly jeopardizing
his return trip to the games.
Once he got to Athens, his undoing proved to be the Greco-Roman
oddity that assured his Sydney gold: the clinch. Both wrestlers
lock hands behind the other, maneuvering for the slightest
advantage before muscling each other to break the clinch and gain a
In Sydney, Gardner's only point against Karelin came on a broken
clinch; four years later, all of Tsurtsumia's points did, too. He
threw Gardner out of a clinch to start the overtime, surprising
Gardner with strength he seemed to have lost much earlier.
Despite being 10 years younger than Gardner at 23, the reigning
European champion was perilously fatigued as the match wound down,
once fleeing the mat and taking a penalty point to avoid locking up
After the suddenly quick conclusion, Garner knelt on the mat in
near disbelief, Tsurtsumia dancing excitedly behind him. But within
minutes, a dry-eyed and composed Gardner patiently offered a
clinical explanation of what went wrong.
The condensed version: He gambled by attacking a worn-out
opponent, leaving himself unguarded to his back side and allowing
Tsurtsumia to step around and throw him to the mat.
"One throw and that's the whole match,'' Gardner said. "One
Or maybe two.
"I was surprised Rulon lost two clinches,'' said Jeff Blatnick,
a Greco-Roman gold medalist 20 years ago. "I've never seen him do
that when he's healthy.''
Still, he doesn't think Gardner besmirched his wrestling legacy
by not winning a second Olympic gold. To Blatnick, beating Karelin
assured Gardner's place in the sport's history, and always will.
"He'll be remembered as an Olympic champion and a world
champion,'' Blatnick said. "People forget he won the world
championship the year after Sydney and proved it was no fluke. I
don't think he did anything wrong in this match. He (Tsurtsumia)
was well-coached and knew exactly where to attack.''
Gardner's restrained emotions after the loss contrasted to the
Aegean-sized sea of tears shed Monday when Sara McMann lost the
first gold-medal match wrestled by an American woman. Only in
victory did his emotions come out.
Maybe it's because, deep down, he's still the aw-shucks Wyoming
farmboy who ignored hurtful taunts of "Fatso'' to pursue his
sport, to achieve its ultimate prize and create a niche as one of
America's least likely but most-liked Olympic champions. It is that
devotion to wrestling that drove him to come back, to ignore the
temptation to be like Mary Lou Retton and let a perfect Olympics be
his only Olympics.
"People asked me why go back and take the chance you'll lose
and tarnish your record,'' he said. "I don't look at it as
Now, the man who defeated an aging Russian star to become a gold
medalist has been succeeded by an on-the-rise young Russian,
21-year-old Khasan Baroev, who beat Tsurtsumia 4-2 for the gold.
"One mishap cost me the chance for the gold, but I'm happy with
the bronze and I'll move on,'' Gardner said. "It's not quite a
gold, but it's a medal.''