ATHENS -- He sat down on the mat, legs crossed, fiddling with his laces. Rulon Gardner said he wanted to feel "the way you do when you take off your shoes as a four- or five-year-old kid, on the mat for the first time."
"I took them off as a 33-year-old kid."
American Rulon Gardner, who won gold at the 2000 Games in a stunning upset, takes off his shoes to symbolize his retirement after winning the bronze medal in Greco-Roman at 120kg in Athens.
(Mark J. Terrill -- AP)
Still corn-fed and original, the legend of Afton, Wyo., had given us his last Olympic moment, four years after pulling off the greatest upset in the history of Greco-Roman wrestling, if not the Games. He won bronze this time, not gold, and beat a man from Iran instead of an indomitable Siberian eerily called "The Experiment."
Gardner retired in one of the finest traditions of sport, leaving his shoes in the middle of the circle, in the middle of his growing lore.
"Roo-lawn!" his family shouted from the stands of Ano Liossia Olympic Hall on Wednesday night.
He is the reason we need the Olympics, the sole notion that you can go from a footnote to a folk hero in a few seconds -- and no one will ever remember who you were before.
Your life, your family. Perceptions of who you are and who you always will be in their minds. All of it, irrevocably changed, in the time it takes to desperately hold onto a 300-pound man before he disembowels you.
Gardner broke the "somebody" threshold in 2000, becoming the only man to defeat Alexander Karelin, the most famous champion Greco-Roman wrestling had known. Karelin had not lost an international match in 13 years and was on his way to his fourth gold medal. He treated his opponents not as people before he reverse-lifted them violently to the floor, but as inanimate objects. They were there to be thrown.
But not Rulon. Gardner would not even let Karelin get a firm grip. He won, 1-0, when the bald, chiseled Karelin broke from a clinch, and Gardner cartwheeled across the mat as the Sydney exhibition hall broke into bedlam.
The schlub with the Hoss Cartwright physique, the one they use to call "Fatso," had done it!
He beat "The Experiment."
David Letterman's people called. Jay Leno's too. Soon, it was Rulonmania -- all 286 jiggly pounds of him, jug ears and crewcut included. What a deal; the kid's fame cost nothing.
"I didn't know about celebrity, the transition from going 0 to 100 miles an hour like that," he said in a quiet room of the Main Press Center two hours after his match. "Everything changed so quickly."
The fame didn't do him in, but severe misfortune took its crack.
A year and a half after beating Karelin in "The Miracle on the Mat," Gardner drove a snowmobile too deep into the Wyoming night for anyone to find him until the next morning. He lost the middle toe on his right foot to frostbite and nearly his life.
He survived for 17 hours in 25-below-zero temperature. He kept thinking of his goal to get back to the Olympics, shivering in the frost, trying to think about anything but dying.
This past spring, he emerged almost unscathed from a head-on motorcycle crash. He also badly dislocated his right wrist during a pickup basketball game a few days later. Gardner was considered a long shot to return from injury in time for the Olympics.
Rulon did, of course, furthering the legend. He could lose body parts, all sensory perception in his feet, all good sense the son of a dairy farmer is born with. (He kept playing basketball after the injury.)
But not only would Gardner survive, he refused to lose his Olympic berth.
The toe? "It's in my refrigerator back home in a jar," Gardner said. "I'm going to bury it on the hill next to my dog as soon as I go home."
Some of the myth was shattered on Wednesday morning, when a lanky, 23-year-old Kazakh wrestler took Gardner down in overtime of their semifinal match. The man who beat Karelin was not infallible, after all.
A second gold was gone, and it was lost in the same position that Gardner beat Karelin -- the clinch. "The dreaded clinch; he just got me," he said of Georgi Tsurtsumia, who was beaten in the gold medal match by Russia's Khasan Baroev.
"One mishap cost me the chance for the gold, but I'm happy with the bronze, and I'll move on," Gardner said. "It's not quite a gold, but it's a medal."
After he beat Sajad Barzi, 3-0, controlling the taller Iranian to take the bronze at 264 1/2 pounds, Gardner took off his shoes and marched past the stands with an American flag bundled up. He began weeping.
His coach, Steve Fraser, the first American to win a Greco-Roman gold medal in 1984, lost it, too. Fraser was crying in the mixed zone, talking about this big lug whom he once lost a bet to in Poland after a tournament. (Rulon had successfully carried 215-pound teammate Dan Hicks over his shoulder, more than a mile back to the team hotel.)
"He did what he did tonight with nine toes, think about that," Fraser said, wiping his eyes.
The Bunyan-esque tales kept coming, long into the night.
In "John Henry," Julius Lester's children's book based on the popular black folk ballad, a man of great strength squares off against a steam drill. The ending is set in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia at the time of railroad construction. Sledgehammering through rock and boulder with both hands, John Henry races a steam drill tunneling through "a mountain as big as hurt feelings."
The man dies after "he had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst." But the townfolk who watched decide, "dying ain't important. . . . What matters is how well you do your living."
By that measure, Rulon Gardner also beat the machine. He beat The Experiment, whom people pointed in the crowd last night not as "The Great Alexander Karelin," but as "The guy Rulon beat."
Gardner beat the incredible odds in life that separate the footnotes from the folk heroes, and he came back four years later to tell about it.
He left his shoes and the soul of a grappler on that mat, and now he goes back to being the Wyoming farm boy we almost never knew.
Going on midnight here Wednesday, he was asked what if he never beat Karelin, what if he never crossed the fame threshold. What if Rulon Gardner was just small type in the back of a sports section on one of the last days of the Olympics?
"I've thought about that, but I think I'm on the other side of that line instead of the hero side," Rulon Gardner said. "I'm ultimately a kid that grew up on a farm. And that's where I want to go back to."