Ex-wrestler Gardner goes to bat for sport

Rulon Gardner cherishes the gold medal that he won as a Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler in the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, Australia, as one of the biggest thrills of his life.

Gardner wasn’t given much of a chance against Russian standout Alexander Karelin in the 130-kilogram (286.6-pound) title match, and with good reason. Karelin entered the bout as a three-time Olympic gold medalist, while Gardner was making his Olympic debut.

Standing 6-foot-5, Karelin had a four-inch height advantage on the stocky Gardner, the Russian standout had been undefeated for 13 consecutive years, and he was unscored upon for six straight years.

But Gardner was undeterred, using personal determination and his indomitable will to grind out a 1-0 victory.

“For me, it was revolutionary,” Gardner, 42, said Saturday night before serving as the guest speaker for the Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission and Booker T. Washington Revitalization Corporation’s fourth annual Community Classic Dinner and Benefit Auction at the Bavarian Hall. “To compete at the Olympic Games and to beat Alexander Karelin there was a dream come true.”

But it’s a dream that was placed in serious jeopardy for wrestlers earlier this month, when the International Olympic Committee [IOC] recommended dropping wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games.

Wrestling – the second-oldest Olympic sport behind marathon running – still has a chance to be retained, and Gardner is part of a committee known as The Coalition To Keep Wrestling In The Olympics that will attempt to make its pitch to the IOC to preserve the sport before a final vote is cast this September.

“We were blown away,” Gardner said of the IOC’s Feb. 12 announcement. “The IOC considers wrestling to be a non-core sport, but we’re shocked, because wrestling is one of the oldest Olympic sports. Our committee is going to do all it can to keep wrestling in the Olympic Games.”

Gardner is joined on the committee by other legends of wrestling like Penn State coach Cael Sanderson and Bruce Baumgartner. The group is planning to generate support for wrestling’s continuation in the Olympics on both a nationwide and worldwide basis.

“We have to do all we can in the public relations battle to promote wrestling here in the United States,” said Gardner, who also won a world championship in 2001 and took a bronze third-place medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. “And we have to show the IOC how important wrestling is to the Olympics.”

The biggest push will be to garner international support for wrestling. Such support has already galvanized countries with otherwise diverse political interests such as the U.S., Iran, Russia, and Cuba.

“We have to bring the international pressure,” said Gardner, now a motivational speaker who was brought to Altoona with the help of Rocco Scalzi’s Beating the Odds Foundation. “Wrestling is one of the most diverse sports in the world, and right now, we’re looking at losing the sport of wrestling for the Olympics if the countries of the world don’t come together.”

For wrestlers, a berth in the Olympic Games and a gold-medal performance there has represented the pinnacle of their dreams. That would change drastically if the IOC’s recommendation is not successfully challenged.

Gardner – who spoke to 1,200 students at both the Bellwood-Antis Middle School and in the State College Area School District on Friday, before making an appearance at the District 6-AAA Wrestling Championships at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon – plans to do all he can to see that the Olympics retains wrestling.

“So many wrestlers will miss out on their shared desire to compete in the Olympics if wrestling is cut,” he said. “It would be devastating. Wrestling has such a diverse appeal throughout the world that to eliminate it from the Olympics would be a travesty.”

Gardner – a native of Wyoming who graduated from the University of Nebraska – knows all about winning battles. Along with his epic victory over Karelin, Gardner also survived a treacherous 2002 ordeal in which he fell into a freezing Wyoming river after getting separated from friends during a snowboarding expedition. He remained stranded through the dead of night for 18 hours, eventually losing the middle toe on his right foot due to frostbite.

“I had a near-death experience, but looking back at it now, it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had,” said Gardner, who attributed his wrestling success to his having worked 17-hour days as a youth on his family’s Wyoming farm. “I saw God, I saw Jesus, and I saw the vision of an older brother who had died when I was 8 years old.”

Gardner – who is married (wife Kamie) – kept a positive attitude during the crisis, which ended when a rescue team pulled him to safety.

“I dreamed of wrestling at the Olympics, getting married, having a family,” Gardner said. “I tried to stay positive, dreaming of going on vacation, even dreaming of being warm. When the sun came up that next day, I knew that I would make it.”

Four surgeries later, he returned to Olympic competition for the 2004 games, earning a third-place medal in Greco-Roman competition.

Now he inspires others, including the crowd Saturday that included the Central Blair Recreation Commission’s 2013 Respected Citizen Award recipient – the Sheetz family – and former long-time Altoona High School wrestling coach Marty Rusnak, who introduced Gardner to the audience.

“When Rocco Scalzi asked me about my feelings about having Rulon Gardner as our guest speaker this year, I told him I couldn’t ask for anything more than to have an Olympic gold medalist come here,” CBRC Executive Director Mike Hofer said.

And Gardner said that wrestling couldn’t ask for anything more than what it gets from the state of Pennsylvania.

“There is great support for wrestling here,” he said. “The district tournament was awesome to see. This is probably the best state in the country for amateur wrestling.”