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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | OLYMPICS COVERAGE

Jaws Drop as Americans Put a Headlock on 2 Unlikely Golds

September 28, 2000|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — Athletes from the United States soared to a pair of stunning and unexpected triumphs Wednesday night, creating an air of anticipation for several more U.S. gold medals as the Sydney Olympics moved into their closing days.

First, Rulon Gardner of Afton, Wyo., a tiny farm community near Jackson Hole, beat Alexander Karelin of Russia, possibly the finest wrestler of all time, in overtime in their 286-pound super heavyweight match at the Sydney Exhibition Center. Karelin, three-time defending Olympic champion, had never before lost in international competition.

Then, several hours later in the baseball stadium 15 miles away at Olympic Park, a team of U.S. minor leaguers coached by former Dodger manager Tom Lasorda knocked off Cuba in the gold medal game, 4 to 0. The Cubans had won gold in both the previous Games, at Barcelona in 1992, when baseball became a medal sport, and at Atlanta in '96.

Lasorda, never at a loss for superlatives, had one ready for the occasion:

"All I've done in my career, this is the greatest moment in my life," he said. Lasorda won two World Series with the Dodgers.

The surprising victories boosted the U.S. gold medal total to 29, seven more than China had at the end of the day and 11 more than Russia had won. In all, American athletes had 69 medals with four days of competition left.

More are expected. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, will play the Netherlands today in the gold medal women's doubles tennis match, and the defending-champion U.S. women's soccer team will play Norway for the gold tonight. In a bid for another upset, the surprising American women's volleyball team will play Russia tonight in a quarterfinal match, hoping to clinch at least a silver medal.

It's doubtful, however, that any upset will match Wednesday's stunning pair.

Gardner's victory, in fact, ranks among the biggest surprises in Olympic history. Karelin, 33, known in wrestling circles as Alexander the Great, was not only unbeaten but had not allowed a point to be scored against him in the last 10 years. Gardner, 29 but relatively new to Greco-Roman competition, had never finished higher than fifth in an international tournament.

Greco-Roman wrestling differs from freestyle in that the legs can be used only for support, not for actual wrestling. That means the wrestling is done primarily with the upper body. American high schools feature freestyle, so that is what U.S. wrestlers learn growing up. The Greco-Roman version has long been popular in East European countries, whose athletes have dominated the sport for years.

Yet Gardner, who has a 54-inch chest, used his formidable upper-body strength to hold off Karelin through a scoreless first round, then scored the only point of the match 30 seconds into the second round, briefly breaking Karelin's hold on him. Gardner thought his own hold had been broken by Karelin as well, but officials took 90 seconds to view a video replay and awarded the point to Gardner.

Neither man could gain an advantage through the rest of the three-minute round, and because the rules say a wrestler must score at least three points in regulation time to win, the match went to overtime. Again, neither man could gain an advantage, and with five seconds left, Karelin broke from the clinch, stepped back and conceded the victory to Gardner.

"I grew up for 18 years just pushing cows around, trying to get them where you need them [for milking], and that's what it's like," Gardner, who was raised on a dairy farm, said of wrestling Karelin. "Only problem is, he's a little quicker."

In baseball, Mike Neill hit a bases-empty home run in the first inning, former major leaguer Pat Borders doubled home another run in the fifth, then minutes later, right fielder Ernie Young hit a two-run single.

That left the game up to pitcher Ben Sheets, a 22-year-old Louisiana athlete who is expected to pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers next season.

Mixing a fastball, slider and sweeping curve, Sheets had given up only three hits when center fielder Yasser Gomez stepped to the plate in the ninth inning--with two out, Cuba's last hope.

Gomez slapped a line drive down the left field line, but left fielder Neill took off after it and, sliding on one knee, his gloved hand outstretched, got to the ball just as it was about to hit the ground. Victory, USA.

Make that two victories, USA.

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