Rulon caps career with bronze

Updated: August 26, 2004, 7:48 AM ET
Associated Press

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.

Rulon Gardner
'One mistake' cost Rulon Gardner his bid to become the first U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler to win two gold medals.

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 retirement.

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 point.

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 with Gardner.

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 mistake.''

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 tarnishing anything.''

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.''


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press