- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS — Back in Sydney, hardly anyone outside the isolated world of amateur wrestling knew him. He was just another athlete in a largely ignored sport.

Four years, a Greco-Roman gold medal and a lifetime’s worth of changes later, Rulon Gardner is both big and famous, one of the more recognizable — and popular — Americans at the Athens Games.

Walk into the downtown McDonald’s and there he is, a super heavyweight bear of a man signing autographs for the staff, chatting up the customers, loading up a bag of burgers to take to the Olympic Village. Back there, he’s hanging out with Martina Navratilova or Andy Roddick or putting another U.S. Olympian in a playful headlock.

It was the same way back home before he left.

One night, he’s throwing out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game, then he turns up on “The Tonight Show” to announce his new marriage. Then he’s opening Rulon’s Burger Barn in his Afton, Wyo., hometown. Down a burger, fries and a soft drink faster than the 264-pound Gardner did, and your name goes on a plaque, just down the wall from the nearly life-sized poster of the Olympic champ.

Thanks to nine amazing minutes on one unforgettable day in Australia, Gardner went from being Mr. Nobody to Mr. Somebody, beating Alexander Karelin — who had never lost an international match and is considered the greatest wrestler of all time — to win the Olympic gold.

Now, more than 1,400 days later, Gardner is about to find out whether he can do it one more time. Again, a sliver of time can expand his fame, fortune and reputation or, conversely, define him as somebody who benefited from being the right person in the right place at just the right time.

Gardner says he will leave his shoes on the wrestling mat following his last match in Athens, symbolizing a wrestler’s retirement. Whether he leaves with a medal might be determined by how well he has handled the fame he now has and the expectations that go with it.

Gardner is pushing the limits of a wrestler’s shelf life; at age 33, he’s a year older than Karelin was when Gardner beat him in wrestling’s upset of the century. He’s also lost a middle toe to frostbite and, earlier this year, badly dislocated a wrist during a pickup basketball game and survived a head-on accident on his motorcycle.

He also has gone through a divorce and absorbed criticism from some folks back in Afton that he has become too comfortable with his mini-celebrity lifestyle.

But when he returns to the Olympic wrestling mat today, he will be just another Greco-Roman wrestler chasing the sport’s most cherished prize. Then, just as in Sydney, nothing will matter except who is the best wrestler at that moment.

Gardner thinks he is ready. He is wrestling much better than he did in finishing 10th in last year’s world championships; he recently won his first international title since the 2001 worlds in a pre-Olympic tournament in Warsaw. He also had to beat former world champion Dremiel Byers in the U.S. trials just to get to Athens.

“I think [winning in Athens] would be the ultimate for a wrestler,” Gardner said. “You are at a place where wrestling’s been for 2,000 years.”

Just as in Sydney, his chief opposition is expected to be a Russian — Khasan Baroev, who beat Gardner en route to winning last year’s world championship. Other threats are 2003 bronze medalist Georgi Tsurtsumia of Kazakhstan, four-time world silver medalist Mihaly Deak-Bardos and Cuba’s Mijail Lopez, who owns multiple victories over Gardner in Pan-American competition.

Gardner got a favorable draw yesterday; he is the favorite in a four-man pool that includes Mindaugas Mizgaitis of Lithuania, Sergei Moreyko of Bulgaria and Marek Mikulski of Poland. And Karelin is nowhere in sight.

“I’m not disappointed he’s not here,” Gardner said. “I have one goal ahead of me, and that’s to win a gold medal.”

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