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Rulon Gardner hope for second miracle at Athens

Rulon Gardner went on to win his first gold medal at Sydney by upsetting the once-invincible Russian Alexander Karelin.
PTI | By Larry McShane (AP), Athens
PUBLISHED ON AUG 10, 2004 02:26 PM IST

Rulon Gardner is not your average guy: He owns one gold medal, and just nine toes.

The Olympic bling came via a stunning upset four years ago in Sydney, where Gardner went from obscurity to celebrity by defeating the once-invincible Russian Alexander Karelin. The latter was courtesy of a snowmobiling debacle in February 2002, when he was stranded for 18 gruelling hours in the Wyoming wilderness. "I almost lost both my feet, and I should have lost my life," Gardner said on Monday, the day he arrived in Athens, at a news conference with his five teammates from the US Greco-Roman wrestling team.

Gardner now finds himself both defending his title and bidding to become only the fourth American wrestler to capture a second gold medal. Just last month, he won his first Greco-Roman international title since 2001 in his final Olympic tune up.

So much in the 32-year-old's life has changed, but one thing remains constant going into this year's 120-kilogram competition. "Overall, the anxiety's still the same," Gardner said. "I'm going to go out there, do my best, and hopefully bring home the gold medal."

If he does, Rulon Gardner will have overcome the one man who did the most to stop him from repeating: Rulon Gardner. There was the snowmobiling accident, with its amputation and lengthy rehabilitation. He survived a motorcycle crash earlier this year _ he wasn't wearing a helmet _ only to severely dislocate his right wrist in a pickup basketball game.

Gardner recalled seeing his wrist relocated to his forearm, popping it back into place, and finishing the game. Three pins now hold the fragile joint in place, but he insisted his fitness was not a concern.

"My overall health is really well," Gardner said. "There are some lingering effects of the dislocated wrist, but I've had two months to heal up."

A second gold would put Gardner in the elite of American wrestling. Only John Smith (1988, 1992), Bruce Baumgartner (1984, 1992) and George Mehnert (1904, 1908) did it before; all were freestyle wrestlers, meaning Gardner could become the first American Greco-Roman wrestler to accomplish that trick.

Gardner and his teammates arrived in Athens with high hopes: They want to bring home four medals, and hope for a top 10 finish from everyone on the squad. They're particularly pumped by the idea of competing in Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics and their sport.

"I think we can meet the goal," said coach Steve Fraser. "I think all of these guys are capable of winning a medal." Three of them already have, including Gardner's gold in 2000. Dennis Hall, coming back at 121 pounds after an eight-year absence, won a 1996 silver medal, while 211-pounder Garrett Lowney captured a bronze four years ago.

Lowney has waged his own medical battles, coming back from a herniated disc that led to fusion surgery on two of his vertebrae. "I wasn't planning on wrestling again," Lowney said. "But the doctors gave me the OK for training, I made the team and I haven't looked back."

Gardner can't help but look back; questions about his physical well-being came up repeatedly as he met with reporters. The burly wrestler is philosophical about his roller-coaster ride after the Sydney Games.

"I was on the top of the world," Gardner said of his gold medal win. "I came back home, and went from the high of the highs to the low of the lows. ... But with success or failure, you have to be happy with where you are in your life."

With all he's overcome physically, Gardner's path to another gold will feature one less impediment: Karelin has retired, precluding an Olympic rematch. That's just fine by Gardner.

"I'm not disappointed at all that he's not here," he said, with a wide smile.

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