Thursday, August 26, 2004

Having embraced wrestling to fullest, Gardner lets go

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ATHENS - Big boys do cry.

Not when they dislocate wrists, fly headfirst off a Harley, lose a toe to frostbite or, oh yeah, nearly freeze to death. It takes something more dire.

A life change. A passage, a goodbye to eight years of giving everything to one thing. A pair of wrestling shoes, removed and placed in the center of the mat. That will make you cry.

After he defeated Sajad Barzi of Iran to win the bronze medal of the 120-kilogram class in Greco-Roman wrestling, Rulon Gardner sat on the mat and took off his shoes. It's the universal Olympian sign of retirement from sport. An assistant coach from the U.S. team gathered up an American flag that had been tossed from the stands and handed it to Gardner. Rulon rested in the center of the mat, flag cradled in his lap, and undid his shoes.

Rulon Gardner of the United States takes off his shoes to symbolize his retirement.
(AP photo)
"As a kid, we all take our shoes off the same way," Gardner said. "You start as a wrestler as a 7- or 8-year-old kid, putting your shoes on, on the mat. I took 'em off as a 33-year-old kid."

We don't bother much with Greco-Roman wrestling. Or any wrestling, for that matter. Greco-Roman at the Olympics is generally neither Greco nor Roman. It's usually a Balkan-fest. A Balkan-alia, of former Soviet republics that are really hard to spell: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.

The erstwhile Soviets and a clot of Central Europeans dominate Greco, which is too ancient and arcane for go-go, cutting-edge America. That doesn't mean Rulon Gardner has gone unnoticed.

Four years ago, in Sydney, he slew a giant. Gardner beat the unbeatable Russian, Alexander Karelin, who hadn't lost in 13 years, to win gold. It was a Miracle on Mat story made more endearing by the modest face Gardner gave us after he won.

He was a big (265 pounds), doughy, appealing kid, from a town of 2,000 in Wyoming, the last of nine children. He popped from obscurity to fame like a dancer from a cake at a bachelor party. "There was very little transformation from zero to 100 miles an hour," Gardner said Wednesday. "You don't picture yourself as a celebrity when you're down on the mat sweating on people."

Gardner was, in fact, the poster kid for the weirdness of fame.

Late-night talk shows. Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sponsors. Speeches.

Divorce, from a wife who couldn't deal with his notoriety and their loss of innocence. Near death.

He would have been on his snowmobile in February 2002 whether he'd beaten Karelin or not. Gardner is no spectator; he lives life. But there he was, tossed from the vehicle, wet and alone for 15 hours at 25 below zero. When his body gave up and he stopped shivering, he believed he would die.

He didn't. He just lost a toe, which he keeps in formaldehyde in a jar in his refrigerator, to remind him he's mortal.

He didn't die in March, either, when a car pulled in front of his motorcycle and sent him head-over-handlebars. He didn't lose in the Olympic Trials after he dislocated a wrist playing basketball.

And Gardner didn't lose here until Wednesday's semifinals, a defeat he attributed partly to having just nine toes. It might affect a man's balance.

It was important to him, Gardner said, to honor his sport by wrestling every match hard, so that's what he did in his last match. "You've been through so much the last four years," his coach, Steve Fraser, told him before the match. "Let your hard work show."

He did. It did, and just now, he is walking barefoot around the ring and out of the Ano Liossia Olympic Hall, crying like a baby. "That meant the world to me," Gardner said. "I understood the spectacle of putting your shoes on the mat. You know you have fulfilled your life as a wrestler."

He's a good man, Rulon Gardner, a solid guy who, unlike many of us, did exactly what he said he would do, start to finish. He left a very big and good part of his life on the mat Wednesday, without a single regret. "My story, or any athlete's story, is what the Olympic spirit is all about," he said.

Rulon's shoes stayed on the mat barely a minute. A worker scooped them up and took them away. It's doubtful anyone will fill them.



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