He had plenty of chances to quit. Excuses, too. Instead, Rulon Gardner willed himself to become one of those stories that make you watch and wonder: What keeps a guy like that going?
Gardner beat top-seeded Dremiel Byers twice in overtime Sunday in the U.S. Olympic trials to earn a return trip to the Summer Games.
"To be sitting up here again," he said, "is a miracle."
If so, it's his second in the span of four years.
In Sydney in 2000, he won gold by pulling off the upset of a lifetime. Gardner had never won a medal of any color before in any world championship on the night he faced Russian Alexander Karelin in the super-heavyweight final. Karelin - nicknamed "The Experiment" - had never lost an international match and yielded exactly one point in the past 10 years.
But just like that, the Wyoming farm boy who started his training by cleaning out barns tossed the most mythic figure in Greco-Roman wrestling over his shoulder like another bale of hay. Afterward, Gardner admitted he never had a plan.
"When did I think I could beat him?" he said. "About 10 minutes ago."
Improvisation ruled for one glorious evening, but who knew it would become the template for everything that followed.
Two years later, Gardner went for a snowmobile ride, plunged into icy water and spent a night in the backcountry fighting for survival. Spotted by a search plane and rescued by helicopter the next day, he wound up losing a toe to frostbite. That sacrifice sounds small only if you overlook how much time and effort it takes to regain the balance and leverage required to execute wrestling maneuvers with a 264-pound frame and the nimbleness of a ballerina.
But Gardner wasn't done laying obstacles in his own path. In the run-up to the U.S. trials, he dislocated his right wrist severely enough to require stabilizing pins and just for good measure, crashed his motorcycle when a car pulled out in front of him suddenly.
Competition for Olympic spots being what it is, one of Gardner's opponents in the trials went after his wrist and another tried to draw him off-balance. He won the first match by a fall and the second by turning his foe over twice.
All that earned Gardner was another shot at Byers, who beat him in the national championships last month and as the top seed in the trials, didn't have to wrestle until the two met on the last day in a best-of-three championship series. Somehow, Gardner came up with a countermove for everything Byers tried.
When the second match ended, Byers, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, vowed to help Gardner prepare for Athens, "anything I can to get him another medal."
"He," Byers added, "is an important man."
To understand why that's so requires you to take a step back. Anybody who reads the newspapers knows the five-ring Olympic franchise isn't what it used to be.
People were skeptical about athletes using performance-enhancing drugs even before the BALCO investigation started spreading suspicions like hay fever, and the chaotic buildup to these Summer Games threatens to cast a pall over the proceedings. More than a few of the NBA millionaires who have been gifted spots on the U.S. basketball team are handing them back, uninterested or unwilling in the sacrifices the assignment demands.
But for Gardner and nearly all the rest of his countrymen, that was never an option. At age 32, he had to sacrifice nonstop for four years just to get his hands on the opportunity.
A handful of stories every bit as compelling played out at the trials over the weekend. One involved a former world champion trying to return to topflight competition at 40, another trying to do it at 42 - after open-heart surgery and being told never to wrestle again. With women set to make their debut on the Olympic stage, there were familiar tales of athletes forced to juggle the demands of motherhood or put their careers on hold just to compete.
While Gardner's story is no more important than the rest, what he possesses, besides grit, is celebrity. As a result, his misfortunes, mishaps and even missteps since that fateful night four years ago will be recounted over and over again as the games draw near. That Gardner came through it all to write one final chapter is as fitting a tribute to the Olympic spirit as you're likely to find.
It's not a bad reminder, either, that while fate often knocks good men down, keeping them down is another matter altogether.
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