Forget David vs. Goliath. This was David vs. the bully who beat up Goliath after school. On one side of the mat in the gold-medal superheavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling match at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre stood fearsome, ferociously sculpted Alexander Karelin, the mythic Russian behemoth who, besides not having lost a single international match since 1987, was the off-the-charts favorite to win his fourth gold medal in as many Olympics. His unheralded opponent: Rulon Gardner, 29, a doughy, sheepish first-time Olympian and self-described “goober farm boy” from Wyoming. Hey, the silver isn’t so bad.
Shockingly, the silver went to the mighty Karelin, who found himself on the wrong end of one of the greatest Olympic upsets ever. The 286-lb. Gardner—not far removed from taunts of “fatso” as a teenager—outlasted an exhausted Karelin, 33, to win the gold by 1-0 in overtime, a victory so stunning it propelled the giddy victor into a joyous jumbo cartwheel and somersault. “I didn’t think that I could beat him,” says Gardner, who recalls that in his one previous encounter with the 6’4″, 286-lb. Karelin, in 1997, “he threw me on my head three times.”
In Sydney, though, Gardner’s incredible stamina allowed him to stay alert and avoid the dreaded Karelin Lift, a vicious takedown maneuver named for its inventor. “Gardner not only pulled an upset,” says NBC wrestling analyst Jeff Blatnick, the last man other than Karelin to win superheavyweight gold, in 1984, “he pulled a legend-killer.”
And, almost instantly, Gardner’s own legend began taking shape. The youngest of eight children raised on his family’s dairy farm in Afton (pop. 1,625) in southwest Wyoming, Gardner grew up lifting bales of hay and hauling 5-gallon buckets of milk. “We always tried to pass our chores on to one another,” says his brother Russell, 35, who is a schoolteacher in Afton. “And since Rulon was the youngest he got more than his share.” The chores strengthened Gardner’s will as well as his body. “It made me a tougher person,” he says. “It teaches you how to strive to do good things.”
Always a prodigious eater—as a pizza deliverer he would polish off pies he failed to deliver on time—Gardner was teased about his girth as well as about a learning disability. “I was a slow reader,” he says. “I had to push myself past what anybody said I could do.” Despite a teacher’s suggestion he milk cows the rest of his life, Gardner earned a degree in health and physical education while on a wrestling scholarship at the University of Nebraska.
Similarly, he surprised wrestling foes, who mistook his roundness for softness, and became a U.S. champion in 1995 and ’97. A huge underdog heading to Sydney, Gardner beat four wrestlers to get to the gold-medal match and, once there, devised a plan to survive the panic-inducing Karelin. “I wanted to be like a snake,” he says, “A slow, painful kill.” In front of his father, Reed, his mother, Virginia, and 14 other relatives, Gardner successfully held the frustrated Karelin at bay, and when the Russian released his grasp for a split second, Gardner won a single point—and the gold. Five days later America’s newest hero beamed as he carried the flag at the closing ceremonies in Sydney.
After some whirlwind spotlight-basking—Leno, Rosie, a parade in Afton—Gardner will return to Colorado Springs, where he lives with wife Stacy—a social studies teacher he met through friends in 1995 and wed the next year—and where he’ll train for the 2004 Olympics. Not that Gardner is “all wrestle, wrestle, wrestle,” says Stacy, 31. “We love to ride wave-runners, and he loves to Rollerblade and play tennis.”
Tennis? Okay, so the good-natured Gardner isn’t your typical giant-slayer (he also has a weakness for children and small animals). But the farm boy who played touch football on his wedding day is nothing if not genuine—and he plans to stay that way. A day after his win, Gardner allowed a swarm of well-wishers to touch his medal, despite warnings that such handling would tarnish the gold. Not to worry, he said. “I’ll just polish it up.”
Cynthia Wang in Sydney, Gavin Ehringer in Colorado Springs and Pam Grout in Lincoln, Neb.