Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Gardner two victories from winning repeat gold

Greco-Roman wrestling

By Alan Robinson
The Associated Press

ATHENS - On a day when Rulon Gardner escaped any surprises on the mat, there was one waiting for him in the stands.

Alexander Karelin, the man who lost to Gardner in wrestling's greatest upset ever, is in Athens to see if Gardner can win another Olympic gold.

Three matches and three wins into his second Olympics, Gardner is showing Karelin that maybe his upset wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.

Gardner, far more experienced in international wrestling than he was in Sydney, was patient, technically sound and just aggressive enough to hold off three successive upset attempts Tuesday and reach the semifinals.

If he can beat Kazakhstan's Georgi Tsurtsumia on Wednesday, he will go for another super heavyweight gold later in the day, with a chance to become the first U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler to win two golds.

"Nothing against the group in Sydney, but these (early) matches were more difficult than those," Gardner said. "There's more experience here now, and today was tougher."

Gardner opened a busy day in the 2641/2-pound (120kg) competition with a workmanlike 3-0 victory over Lithuania's Mindaugas Mizgaitis, followed it with a tie-breaking decision over 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Sergei Moreyko of Bulgaria and, about five hours later, a 3-0 decision over Poland's Marek Mikulski.

"He was very smart, very calm, very relaxed and very patient," U.S. coach Steve Fraser said. "He was a very smart wrestler."

And a very surprised one when his brother, in from Afton, Wyo., ran into Karelin, who was sitting undetected in a half-filled arena. Apparently, even Karelin wants to see if the man who was never supposed to be good enough to win one Olympics can win two.

"Sure, it motivates you," Gardner said. "He didn't lose for 13 years. He's the greatest wrestler of all time."

Gardner's tightest match was against Moreyko. Gardner, 33, broke their clinch in the second period, then thought he had another point when he muscled Moreyko off the mat in overtime. The referee initially awarded Gardner a point, but the call was reversed upon video replay because Gardner broke the hold first.

The call upset the U.S. coaches - the aggressive wrestler is supposed to be rewarded in such situations - but Gardner wasn't worried. His body has absorbed plenty of damage since Sydney, but his mind has stored up the tricks and gimmicks needed to succeed in a low-scoring sport where a single mistake can ruin years of hard work.

"I was OK when it was 1-1, I could be really patient," said Gardner, who was aware he had one fewer passivity call than Moreyko and thus owned the tiebreaker. "In the first part of the match I thought I was more aggressive than him, and that will get you some calls."

Unlike Sydney, where the crowd was decidedly pro-Gardner, the decision met with whistles and boos from a mostly Greek crowd that was clearly rooting for Moreyko.

Maybe those spectators weren't aware of Gardner's misadventures since he pulled off the "Miracle on the Mat" upset of three-time Olympic champion Karelin in 2000 - one of the greatest Olympic surprises in any sport.

Since then, Gardner lost a toe and nearly froze to death after becoming lost on his snowmobile on a minus-25 degree night, avoided serious injuries in a head-on motorcycle crash, and ripped up his right wrist playing pickup basketball in April.

Through it all, his focus remained the same: Get back to the Olympics and do it again. If Gardner reaches the final, he'll likely oppose Russian world champion Khasan Baroev.

The other three Americans to wrestle all were eliminated. Dennis Hall, trying for a second Olympic medal eight years after winning his first, beat Petr Svehla of the Czech Republic 3-2 at 121 pounds (55kg) but was eliminated with a 3-0 loss to pool winner Aleksey Vakulenko of Ukraine.

Brad Vering, from Howells, Neb., was ousted from a three-man pool at 184 pounds (85kg) pool with a 4-0 loss to Egypt's Mohamed Mohamed, who won both his pool matches.

Oscar Wood, of Fort Carson, Colo., lost 5-2 to Germany's Jannis Zamanduridis, 9-3 to Greece's Konstantinos Arkoudeas and 11-1 to Kazakhstan's Mkkhitar Manukyan at 1451/2 pounds (66kg).

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