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Wrestling With Success

Gardner, one of the stars of Sydney, had trouble getting to Athens, but he's ready to go

August 08, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Rulon Gardner believes that if it had been the other way around, if he had lost to Dremiel Byers in the finals of the Olympic wrestling trials in May, he would have found the strength to help Byers prepare for the Athens Games with every ounce of energy he could muster.

It might have broken his heart to know he couldn't defend the medal he'd so stunningly won in Sydney, but he would have done it, he says.

He was spared that test when he defeated Byers twice, in overtime, to win the lone U.S. Greco-Roman heavyweight berth. It is Byers who has displayed remarkable selflessness by working out with Gardner every day at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., prodding Gardner to work harder and become faster and stronger because Byers considers it the right thing to do.

"It's us against them. Loyalty behind the flag," said Byers, an Army staff sergeant and member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program.

"I know there's guys out there who don't wrestle good unless they're wrestling Americans. I want him to be prepared for anything he might see in the Olympics.... They can't beat us both."

Byers offered his aid without prompting or hesitation, as Gardner hopes he would have done. In return, Gardner has vowed to split with Byers any bonus money he earns for winning a medal at Athens.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has offered each athlete $25,000 for earning a gold medal, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze, and USA Wrestling will award an additional $10,000 for each gold medal. Gardner's victory over 2002 world bronze medalist Yuri Patrikeev of Russia at a major tournament in Warsaw in early July suggests Byers has pushed Gardner to a level where he will contend for a medal -- and earn them both a chunk of cash.

"He's been nothing but a great person," said Gardner, whose upset of the legendary Russian Alexander Karelin at Sydney ranks among the greatest feats in Olympic annals. "He beats me up and is always saying, 'You need to do this or that.'

"It's a matter of respect between two athletes. I hopefully will be able to pursue some other [financial] avenues if I win a medal.

"I'm going out there for him and every other wrestler."

Byers, who's now aiming for the 2008 Games, will be in Athens to analyze films of U.S. wrestlers' opponents and help his compatriots warm up. He praised Gardner's financial largess as "kind of unheard of," adding, "I'm going to keep that in mind when it's my turn. This could set a precedent.

"He knows he needs me, and I've needed him over the years. I happened to lose to one of the best wrestlers in the world. That's not a bad thing, especially when you put up your best fight."

Gardner, who will be 33 on Aug. 16 -- eight days before his first match -- knows about fighting on and off the mat.

One of nine children reared on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyo., he overcame a learning disability to earn a degree at the University of Nebraska. He won three U.S. championships before going to Sydney and defeating Karelin, who had never lost in 15 years of international competition. To emphasize that he wasn't a one-shot wonder, Gardner came back the next year to win U.S. and world titles.

He missed the 2002 season as the result of injuries he suffered in a snowmobile mishap Feb. 14 in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, near his home. Separated from the friends he'd gone out with, he got lost and drove the vehicle into a gully. He was unable to move it and spent the night alone, wet and shivering in freezing temperatures, before help arrived. Doctors told him they would have to amputate his right foot, but he refused to accept that; he ultimately lost the middle toe on his right foot and also required extensive skin grafts.

He had to relearn how to walk and balance himself, yet came back to win the 2003 world team trials and finish 10th at the world championships. His misfortunes continued, though, when he was involved in a motorcycle accident March 30 while riding to practice. He emerged with only a few scrapes and bruises, but a few days later he dislocated his right wrist playing pickup basketball and underwent surgery after he lost to Byers at the U.S. championships.

Although some of his opponents at the Olympic trials targeted his wrist, hoping to break his holds and his concentration, Gardner didn't waver. He was steadfast and strong through the challenge tournament, even though the wrist bothered him.

"There's still some concern," he said of his wrist, "but I'm training hard and trying to get it 100%. It's still sensitive, but I'm pretty darn healthy compared to how it was after it happened."

Not that it was intentional, but it seems appropriate that he married a nurse, Lisa Nichols, on July 23.

"Life is beautiful for me," Gardner said. "Everything I've ever wanted in life I've gotten, like making it back to the Olympic team and, hopefully, having my parents there for another part of my journey."

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