Take one look at the Russian, Alexander Karelin (menacing,
muscular, mysterious) and his American opponent, Rulon Gardner
(crew-cutted, chubby-cheeked, cream-pie-soft), and the outcome of
this gold medal Greco-Roman heavyweight match seems foreordained.
The celebrated Karelin, 15 pounds at birth, hardened by a boyhood
spent hauling logs and rowing on the frigid lakes of his native
Siberia, his mind molded by doses of Dostoyevsky, surely will
annihilate the unknown Gardner, an athlete, yes, but one no doubt
with a background of TV watching, Nintendo playing and Whopper
consuming. Karelin, 33, is on the downside of a career that has
put him among the Olympic gods, but when he finally loses--if he
ever loses--it will be to some hungry Hungarian, some massive
Moldavian or maybe Bulgaria's Sergei Mourieko, a.k.a Baby
Karelin, widely considered the second-best superheavyweight at
the Sydney Games. But it won't be to this Gardner.
In the audience on Sept. 27 is IOC president Juan Antonio
Samaranch, who has apparently decided that he's the only one
worthy of hanging on Karelin's thick neck a fourth gold medal, an
unprecedented number in Greco-Roman wrestling.
The match begins, and it is, like most superheavy bouts, a
tugging and pulling contest, but any second the 6'4", 290-pound
Karelin, who last lost in 1986, is expected to lock both arms
around Gardner's midsection, hoist him over his shoulder in a
move known as a reverse lift and launch the American so that he
lands on his pumpkin head. That's what Karelin did to Gardner
three times in 1997, when during their only previous meeting
Karelin drubbed him 5-0, a margin of victory comparable to 10-0
in baseball. "I landed so hard," Gardner says, "the back of my
heels almost came around and touched my head."
This time, however, Gardner repeatedly repels Karelin and then
takes a 1-0 lead early in the second period when Karelin makes a
small, rare mistake. Karelin is the aggressor and Gardner is
twice called for passivity, but it's not as if Gardner is pulling
a rope-a-dope. He's merely refusing to bend under Karelin's
pressure. Concern begins to appear on Karelin's chiseled face as
the match goes into overtime (mandatory when neither wrestler has
scored at least three points), and soon something more telling
appears: fatigue. Karelin's eyes narrow, his mouth hangs open. At
every break in the action he puts his hands on his hips and gasps
October 8, 2000
Then, with five seconds left in the overtime, Karelin simply bows
his head in resignation. Gardner remains crouched in the center
of the mat, wary of a ruse, but the match is over. Karelin has
lost to a man whose most impressive credential is a fifth-place
finish in the 1997 worlds. Karelin looks dazed as the referee
holds up Gardner's hand. In a few minutes Karelin will stand on
the podium and hear the national anthem of a country other than
his own, something that has never happened to him.
A Russian journalist pounds the press table over and over, lowers
his head and puts his hands over his eyes. How could it have
happened? How could the Greco-Roman world have turned so
topsy-turvy that, within an hour, the great Karelin will be
ripping the medal off his neck "as if it were a black mark, not
an Olympic silver," as one Russian newspaper will put it the next
day? At the same time Gardner, gold around his thick neck, will
be continuing the most eventful night of his life, one that will
take him to Michael Johnson's birthday party at Planet Hollywood.
And on Sunday night, as the U.S. athletes march into Sydney's
Olympic Stadium, how is it possible that an athlete whom
virtually no one outside the wrestling world had ever heard of
until four days before will be carrying the American flag, his
smile stretching from ear to ear? Well, consider this: It turns
out that where Gardner came from and where Karelin came from
aren't so different after all.
On the 250-acre dairy farm in Afton, Wyo., where Reed and
Virginia Gardner raised their nine children, things were so
quiet in the evening that as teenagers Rulon and his older
brother Reynold got so they could recognize which friend was
approaching by the sound of his car. The friends dropped by, in
twos and threes, asking if the brothers wanted to abandon their
chores for a drive into town. The answer was always no. There
was usually something else to be done around the farm, and,
anyway, beer drinking and carrying on weren't options for the
Gardner kids. They were Mormons.
Life in the Star Valley in western Wyoming was hard. Maybe not as
hard as life in Siberia, but damn hard. For nine months a year
Rulon rose between 4 and 5 a.m. to complete his chores before
school, and it was worse in the summer because there was no
leaving the farm for classes or after-school sports. Rulon got it
coming and going. Reed thought Virginia babied him a little, and
Rulon had a sometimes rocky relationship with his father.
Reynold, 16 months older, had a knack for arranging the
unassigned tasks so that Rulon got the more odious ones, like
shoveling cow muck, the family's polite word for manure. "As an
older brother, I felt that was my job," says Reynold, referring
to sticking Rulon with the dirty work. At school Rulon was called
Fatso and was chided for coming to school with muck stains on his
shoes. He rarely struck out at his tormentors, and his round
face, innocent as an unshucked ear of corn, was usually bathed in
a smile. Still, the insults toughened him, made him a little hard
In 1979, when Rulon was eight, the Gardners had a terrible year.
The Fatso jokes were plentiful, the milking barn burned down, a
side business of Reed's (selling livestock feed) was failing, and
Rulon's 14-year-old brother, Ronald, died of aplastic anemia. The
Gardners had to borrow $150,000 to rebuild the barn, and life
became even harder--hand-me-downs and simple meals and no vehicles
except those needed to get around the farm. "It was hard on
everybody," Reed says. "Maybe it made us tougher in the long
A lot of things made the Gardners tough. Though the boys didn't
look like athletes, they were strong and fit. Rulon and Reynold
picked up newborn calves in the field as easily as others picked
up a puppy. They tossed rocks into dump trucks. They heaved bales
of hay, pitched pails of milk, made a competition out of changing
irrigation pipes, which were 30 feet long and 50 pounds heavy.
Sure, Karelin may have carried a refrigerator up eight flights of
stairs, as the story goes, but Rulon invested a lot of hours
pushing and tugging recalcitrant 1,000-pound cows. Moreover, he
was doing it at Afton's 6,100-foot elevation, building his lungs
and his aerobic capacity to that of a long-distance runner.
As wrestlers at Star Valley High, Reynold was the heavyweight
state champion in '88, and Rulon won that title in '89. Reynold
went on to win two Pac-10 championships at Oregon State, while
Rulon won the '91 national junior college title as a heavyweight
at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. He then transferred to
Nebraska, where he finished fourth in the '93 NCAA championships.
About that time someone asked him if he'd like to try
Greco-Roman. "What's that?" Rulon asked.
During his early training in Greco-Roman, Gardner saw a poster of
a fearsome Russian wrestler named Karelin. "Who's that?" he asked
a training partner.
"That's the best wrestler in the world," Gardner was told.
The Gardner children all graduated from college, virtually every
penny of their tuitions coming from scholarships. Reed may be a
farmer, but he has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a
master's in dairy technology, and Virginia got a degree in home
economics education at Arizona. They know the value of education
as well as they know the value of a good day's work. Geraldine,
the oldest child, is a cardiologist. Rollin, who runs the farm
now, has a degree in animal science. Evon, who has a degree in
business administration, is a corporate trainer for a hotel
chain. Russell is a special education teacher, Diane a
fourth-grade teacher. Marcella is a nurse. Reynold has a
master's in agriculture and teaches that subject in high school.
Rulon earned a degree in physical education from Nebraska, and
his wife, Stacy, is a high school social studies teacher.
A regiment of Rulon's parents, siblings and in-laws made it to
Sydney, 16 strong. It wasn't easy. Almost every one of Afton's
1,200 residents pitched in to help Reed, Virginia and Stacy make
the trip. There was a benefit golf tournament, a Rulon Gardner
Gas Day, an autograph session and a milk-can dinner, a
traditional Wyoming affair during which ham, sausage, corn,
carrots, onions and cabbage are mixed with honey and steamed in
a 10-gallon milk can. In Sydney the family members stayed at
the homes of Australian Mormons and ate most of their meals
together, gratis, at the AT&T Family Hospitality Center down on
the waterfront. It was like a big family holiday.
That atmosphere evaporated when Rulon stepped onto the mat to
face Karelin. Virginia, in particular, was suffering. Rare is
the Rulon match during which she doesn't spend half the time in
the bathroom because of nerves. (He may be 29 years old and
weigh 286 pounds, but he's still her baby.) Rulon joked that the
family put her on the inside seat so she couldn't get out, and,
indeed, she did see every minute of her son's bouts.
Before the gold medal match NBC commentator Jeff Blatnick, who in
1987 was one of Karelin's first international victims, searched
for words to describe the mighty Russian. "You consider this
ancient sport and this monumental man who's had a perfect
career," said Blatnick, "and the only thing you come up with is
that he's what Hercules was to the ancient Greeks."
One of Hercules's biggest battles came against Antaeus, whose
mother was Earth and who was a worthy opponent as long as he kept
either a hand or a foot on the ground. Hercules finally defeated
Antaeus by picking him up and strangling him in midair. The
comparison is irresistible. Gardner, child of the earth, was
trying to avoid being hoisted into the air by this Hercules.
Gardner picked up the lone point of the match, only the second
Karelin had yielded in two years, when Karelin released his grip
during the clinch that began Round 2, and thereafter Gardner
repelled every offensive. How strong-minded did Gardner have to
be to fight off that strength, that willpower, that oppressive
weight of precedent? Though his body isn't devoid of loose skin
(as Karelin's appears to be), Gardner's greatest strengths are
his conditioning and his will. "Nobody wants to wrestle Rulon in
practice," says U.S. coach Steve Fraser, "because he never lets
Reynold gave an explanation the day after Rulon's monumental
victory: "It's the law of the harvest. You plant the seed, you
water the seed, you fertilize the seed and you weed the seed. If
you do those things, and only if you do them, you will harvest."
Reynold stared at his brother, who was signing autographs and
letting tourists fondle his gold medal. "Only a few people know
how hard Rulon worked and where he came from," said Reynold.
"Rulon knows the law of the harvest."
"Nobody wants to wrestle Rulon in practice," says U.S. coach
Steve Fraser. "He never lets up."