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ATHENS 2004

The Big Guy Is Back

As old nemesis Alexander Karelin watches, reigning Greco-Roman wrestling champion Rulon Gardner wins his way into the semifinals.

August 25, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The shadow of Alexander Karelin remains with Rulon Gardner, even though the historic moment that will bind them forever occurred four years ago.

Tuesday night, in a wrestling hall in suburban Athens, American Greco-Roman star Gardner won his way into Wednesday's semifinals. He is the star now. It was his night, just as today is likely to be his time to win a second consecutive gold medal, which would be a first for the United States in Greco-Roman wrestling.

But up above, in Section 123, frequently interrupted by camera wielders and autograph seekers, was a barrel-chested man with short cropped hair, sporting Bermuda shorts, loafers with no socks and a stare that would melt Ray Lewis.

Alexander Karelin.

There was no interviewing him. His seat, and privacy, were well guarded after he'd been swarmed by wrestling fans. But that's part of the mystery, even for Gardner, who talked about Karelin after his 3-0 win over Marek Mikulski of Poland in the night session almost as much as he talked about the match.

That may always be the case, as shocking as the moment was in Sydney when Gardner beat the unbeatable. Already, Olympic books put Gardner's 1-0 overtime win for the super-heavyweight gold medal on the short list of biggest shockers in the Olympics.

The Russian army colonel had won the gold in Seoul, performing a five-point reverse body lift in the last 30 seconds while trailing, 3-0 -- unheard of in the sport. The legend had begun.

He won again in Barcelona, then Atlanta, where he outscored his opponents, 25-0. When he got to Sydney, he had not yielded a point, much less lost, in 10 years and was a foregone conclusion for another gold. Among feared men, he stood second to none.

And then along came this American farm boy from small town USA -- Afton, Wyo. -- who wrestled a perfect gold-medal final and got his point by forcing Karelin, then 33, to yield his grip.

Karelin retired immediately afterward, and although there have been rumors of his return to training and a possible revenge shot, he looked like most other spectators here -- except for his grizzly-bear size and countenance.

Gardner knew he was in town and had been told he was in the crowd.

"My brother and wife had their picture taken with him," he said. "I think he recognized my brother.

"I haven't seen him since I left the Olympic village in Sydney. I'd like to walk up and shake his hand."

But Gardner has never hidden that he wasn't all that excited about Karelin's coming back, about having to wrestle him again. Recently, Associated Press quoted him as saying that although he is not afraid of Karelin, he is realistic about what happened.

"If you do it once, you know.... Twice, it's a miracle."

In the years since Sydney, other things have kept Gardner in the news. He got stranded in a snowmobile accident and eventually lost a toe to frostbite, after having been told he'd lose an entire foot. Then he crashed his motorcycle and scraped himself up, and last spring dislocated his wrist playing basketball.

"I've still got tape on that, and it still hurts a little," he said.

As much as Karelin scowled at the spotlight, Gardner embraces it. "I'm blessed," he said. "My local paper is here, following me around, and people keep calling friends and family."

Do people recognize him more here? "I wouldn't say that," he said. "Well, except the Russians. They all look at me funny. I think they know who I am."

These Olympics will be career's end for Gardner. So maybe sometime late tonight, when Gardner leaves his shoes on the mat in wrestling's traditional way of announcing retirement -- whether it be after a gold-medal match or a bronze-medal match -- there will be a huge Russian, standing somewhere back in the hallway, waiting to shake hands.

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