10 Jun 2020
On the day new documentary Rulon Gardner Won’t Die premieres on the Olympic Channel, figures past and present reflect on how the extraordinary triumphs and tribulations of one of the Olympic Games’ most enduring personalities continue to shape wrestling in the USA and beyond.
Joe Rau was a shy, chunky, wrestling-obsessed kid of nine years old when he sat down with his dad to watch their little-known and even less fancied compatriot Rulon Gardner in the Greco-Roman men’s super-heavyweight gold-medal bout at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000. Gardner was taking on the colossus Aleksandr Karelin, a man unbeaten in 13 years.
Everyone believed victory was impossible. Everyone except Gardner, the round-faced, round-bodied farming kid from Wyoming who had never finished higher than fifth in a world-class event.
“It changed the way I viewed myself,” said Rau, whose voice still betrays the joyful incredulity of that remarkable day.
“I was a chubby little kid and he looked like me. I remember watching and thinking in my head, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this’. It had a huge impact.”
Rau is currently his nation’s No.1-ranked -87kg wrestler, and in early March this year he qualified for a spot in his weight category for the USA at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. He traces it all back to Gardner’s shocking win.
“Being a chubby kid, you have more to prove. Most of the wrestlers you see are shredded and made from stone and our most famous wrestler, who accomplished the highest thing you can, was a big chubby guy like me,” Rau said happily.
“Throughout the years I have had a lot of coaches, not just teammates, comment on how I looked. I didn’t let it demotivate me and make me think I couldn’t beat people. It [Gardner’s win] might not have changed how coaches viewed me, but it changed how I viewed myself and made me believe I can do something great or at least get close.”
Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling’s media man for the past 33 years, knows exactly what Rau is talking about. He was there at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, along with a fair few others.
“[IOC] President Samaranch brought Henry Kissinger to the final – not because an American was going to win, but because Karelin [the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic champion] was going to become the greatest Olympic athlete ever,” Abbott said, laughing. “I don’t think anyone bar Rulon thought he could win, but the legend of Rulon started right there.
“It changed my life and it changed the sport of wrestling forever.”
The fact Gardner upset the odds so spectacularly in Greco-Roman wrestling added to the lustre of the legend. Young wrestlers in the USA grow up almost exclusively practising folk or collegiate-style before naturally gravitating to the Olympic discipline of freestyle.
“I literally rented a book at the library and found videos on tape just to try and figure out some Greco techniques,” said Rau, who was determined to follow in his idol’s exact footsteps.
Karelin had dominated Rulon in a bout just months before the Sydney Games. A fact Rau comes back to again and again.
“If Rulon had given up after the first time he wrestled Karelin, he would never have become Olympic champion. That is a huge thing for me,” Rau said. “Comparing the match he lost to when he won taught me to keep fighting despite how you feel, what is going on, whoever your opponent is.”
As the documentary shows in vivid detail, life has not been smooth for Gardner since retiring from the sport having won bronze at the Olympic Games Athens 2004. Multiple brushes with death have piled up alongside massive weight gain, bankruptcy and several failed marriages. It has been tough to watch for all those who hold him close.
“All of his coaches became my coaches. It was really sad for all of us, but especially them because they didn’t know how someone so amazing on the mat could get into all these problems off the mat,” Rau said.
“I can totally relate with all the weight issues. The near-death experiences are pretty crazy. He is someone who has been through a whole lot and I am sure he feels life is never letting up on him and I feel the same way sometimes and I am sure a lot of people do.
“If anything, it is inspiring he is still going and pushing through these problems.”
For Rau, and many others, that is the key. Gardner remains a monumental figure, a totem whose standing is only increased by his obvious humanity. Rau trained with the big man in 2010/11 as Gardner considered a comeback and he still leans on the fire and intensity his hero showed, even when a shadow of his former self.
It is this legacy that drives Rau and many peers onwards: the chance that they too can overcome a Karelin.
“I have been wrestling Viktor Lorincz [Hungary’s current world No.1-ranked -87kg Greco-Roman wrestler] for years and feel like every time I am picking things apart and getting closer,” said Rau, who is ranked seventh in the world. “The last camp we had in Denmark he was so upset how well I was doing against him that he slapped me. Now I know I am getting under his skin. I know I can beat him.
“There was no one in the world who would have believed Rulon if he told them he would beat Karelin, but he believed it. No one is going to believe you until you do it.”