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Miracle Workers

Farm Boy's 1-0 Victory Ends 15 Years of Dominance


SYDNEY, Australia — It was a simple task.

All chesty Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner had to do to win the super heavyweight gold medal for himself and the U.S. was beat Russian Alexander Karelin.

Alexander Karelin, who was going for his fourth consecutive gold medal.

Alexander Karelin, who had won seven consecutive world titles.

Alexander Karelin, who in 15 years of international competition had never lost.

Alexander Karelin, who in the last 10 years had not yielded a point.

Alexander Karelin, who once carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs, rather than ask for help.

Alexander Karelin, who rightfully bragged, "Everything I don't get with my physical ability, I get with my reputation."

Yes, that Alexander Karelin. Alexander the Great. The Russian Bear. The original Intimidator.

So Gardner, a farm boy from Wyoming, beat him.

Handed him a whuppin', in fact.

With five seconds left in the overtime period of their 286-pound match Wednesday night in the Sydney Exhibition Center, and Gardner leading, 1-0, Karelin stood up, stepped back from the action and conceded the victory.

Such is Karelin's reputation, though, that Gardner could hardly accept.

"I didn't care what he did, I was going to stay down for one last explosion," he said. "Whatever he had, I was ready for it."

As it turns out, Gardner was ready for everything. And because he was, he turned in the upset of these Games, one of the great upsets of any Olympics, and certainly the greatest upset of his sport.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, accompanied by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was in the wrestling hall specifically to award Karelin his fourth gold medal. Gardner got it instead.

Said Steve Fraser, himself an Olympic gold medalist and one of Gardner's coaches: "What does this mean? He just beat the best wrestler in the history of wrestling, a wrestler who had never been beaten."

Greco-Roman rules forbid the use of the wrestlers' legs for anything but support, so many matches, especially among the big men, consist of two sweaty guys grappling and pushing, each probing for an opening, looking for leverage to turn, lift or throw the other guy.

The Karelin-Gardner match was gripping drama, the tension building until even the chants of "USA! USA!" by Gardner's supporters were hushed. Then, after a moment of stunned silence when Karelin stepped away, the place went nuts.

There was the great Karelin, sleek and trim, bald and menacing, a man of many titles, practically bowing to this top-heavy American whose best previous finish in international competition had been fifth.

"He mumbled something to me in Russian right at the end," Gardner said. "I have no idea what it was but I think it was basically, 'I give up.' "

Giving up was not on Gardner's mind as he went to the mat, figuring he had nothing to lose and enjoying at least a slight edge in freshness, having wrestled only once earlier in the day, in his semifinal match, an overtime victory over Juri Yevseychyc of Israel. Karelin had gone twice, breezing through his quarterfinal and semifinal matches with his customary efficiency.

"I felt calm," Gardner said. "I felt so calm it was weird. I don't think I've ever been so ready to wrestle. The key was knowing I'm strong enough to stop his lift."

A reverse lift has long been Karelin's trademark move, but he was unable to execute it against Gardner, who has surprising speed for a man whose 54-inch chest spills in waves from his singlet.

"People make fun of me, like I ate a little kid or put somebody inside my chest," Gardner said. "So conditioning is the way I went. [Everybody else] had these great techniques and the only way I could compete was to work hard and not give up."

Many of Karelin's opponents have lost to him before the opening clinch--there's that reputation, after all--but Gardner took the battle to the Russian right from the start.

Neither wrestler could get an advantage in the first three-minute round, however, so neither scored. The rules in that situation call for a coin toss to determine who clinches first--and in his preferred position--at the start of the second round.

The toss went Karelin's way and he locked onto Gardner, who locked back. After about 30 seconds of grappling, Gardner broke Karelin's lock. Gardner said he had lost his grasp too, although maybe after Karelin's slip.

"I have no idea what he did, but somehow he broke [the hold]," Gardner said. "I know he broke it. I was hoping they didn't see it."

If it happened, they didn't. The referee halted the action, checked the videotape with the other judges, then awarded the point to Gardner.

"Karelin got a very good lock, but Rulon got under it and broke it and that was the match," U.S. Coach Dan Chandler said.

Not exactly. There still was the rest of the second round to get through and then, because a wrestler has to score three points to win in regular time, a three-minute overtime.

With each passing minute, though, Gardner grew more confident.

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