Rulon Gardner walked into the Olympic gym in Sydney, Australia, during the final match in the Greco-Roman wrestling competition at the 2000 Summer Olympics. (Greco-Roman style requires that the wrestlers only use their arms and upper body to attack; grabbing legs or tripping is forbidden.) The fact that he was even in the event was surprising to everyone in the room and to the wrestling world outside, though most people didn’t give him much thought. The focus was on Aleksandr Karelin, the three-time reigning Olympic champion in the sport.
Karelin walked onto the mat first, and seemed completely at home on the stage he had owned for the last 13 years. No one had beaten him during that time in any international match. For the last ten years, no one had even scored a point on him. Bob Costas, who was commentating on the match for a TV company, said Gardner had about a 2,000 to one chance of winning.
Gardner followed behind Karelin and both were patted down by the referee to make sure they weren’t greasy or wet. Gardner remembered wrestling Karelin three years before. It was a painful memory since Karelin had thrown Gardner on his face three times and cracked two vertebrae. That was one of Karelin’s long line of victories. He beat Gardner 5-0 then, a relatively high score in the sport.
Gardner and Karelin were now facing each other in the center of the ring. This was the final match for the gold medal. Karelin, 6 foot 5 inches of chiseled muscle, looked down on Gardner who was a little over 6 feet tall. Gardner was fit from hours and hours of hard work and training, but he didn’t look as trim and well-built as Karelin. You didn’t even need to be a wrestling fan to know who was most likely to win.
They began and the opponents closed in with arms bent and slightly below their heads. Each man was thinking about the thousands of lessons they had learned over their lives. Gardner had only started wrestling in Greco-Roman style seven years earlier. That’s a fair amount of time to learn a sport, but Karelin had not lost in 13 years, let alone being tutored in the style for more than a decade before that.
On the match went, Karelin grabbing and swiping at the American’s arms and head. Then Gardner countering with his own pushes and pulls at the Russian’s arms, but always staying close. At the end of the first three minutes, Gardner had to get on his hands and knees while Karelin assumed the top position. Karelin is known around the world for being able to grab other 260-pound wrestlers around the stomach in a kneeling position, then while standing he picks them up and throws them over his head. Gardner tried to make it as difficult as possible for Karelin by swinging his arms, moving is legs and shifting position. Karelin wasn’t able to get into his signature move before the first period ended. It was tied: 0-0.
To start the second period, both mammoth men assume what looks like an awkward hug, with each one locking their arms around the body of their opponent. The first one to release his grip or score a take-down receives the point. For 30 seconds both men try to push and pull and tug on each other to get the coveted first point. In an uncharacteristic lapse of concentration, Karelin breaks his grip and then regains his hold as he tries to start another move. The match is stopped and the referee checks the replay. Gardner is awarded the point. This was the first time since the 1988 Olympic finals that Karelin had been losing in a match.
For the rest of the second period, Karelin tried to overpower Gardner and pull his head down, either in an attempt to get to a move or wear out his opponent. Gardner was not like most of his other opponents. He continued to fight and counter. The next time Garden had to start from the kneeling position, Karelin tried to put Gardner in an armbar, which would have awarded the Russian points. Gardner moved his body to avoid the trap.
Karelin had two more opportunities to pick up Gardner during the rest of the match. One successful throw would have resulted in more than one point, and Gardner would have lost. Around the 7:30 point in the match (they were in overtime now), Karelin must have sensed the time was running short. He looked tired and became desperate to gain a point. But Gardner met him with continued resistance. Gardner looked as if he could keep going much longer.
With less than 10 seconds left in the match, Karelin drops his head and lowers his hands. He mutters that he can’t win, and as the last second expires, Gardner raises his arms and the audience cheers because they saw a miracle.
Karelin was often called the Madman, Superman, or Siberian Bear. Some opponents criticized Karelin as being a product of science not nature, to which Karelin said, he works harder every day, than they work any day.
Gardner might be the exception. Though not particularly muscular looking, Gardner worked hard every day and knew his work would bring the results he wanted. One of his teammates quipped, “look at the little fat kid try to work hard.” By the time Gardner won the gold medal, that teammate had to say, “The little fat kid had out trained and outwrestled everyone. He deserved his rich reward.”
The two men struggling for the gold medal in Sydney that fateful day, had trained hard and worked hard to get there. Karelin’s long reign as champion of the heavyweights was a credit to his hard work. Gardner had never won any championship and had never placed higher than fifth in international competition before beating Karelin. But that didn’t stop him from practicing and working hard. He listened to his coaches and did all he was asked to do by them.
Whatever your dream or vision is, you need to figure out the skills you need to get there. Then you need to practice those skills. Don’t stop with one failure. Don’t quit if it doesn’t come easy. Anything that’s important is worth working and sweating for over time so you can become proficient and obtain your goal.
Here is a link to the match. I love the expression of the people watching the first time Rulon takes the bottom position. They think they know what’s coming – a Wyoming-boy suplex.