By: Joseph M. Hoedel, Ph.D.
Provided By: Character Development & Leadership
"Wrestling has taught me that anything is possible if you are willing to put your mind, body and soul into your efforts"
The man had five nicknames, most notably "the Experiment." He weighed in at 274 lbs. and wrestled as a heavyweight in Greco-Roman wrestling. Every inch of his body was sculpted. He was strong, fierce and intimidating. They even named a wrestling move after him - the Karelin Lift - mainly because he was the only man strong enough to pick up another heavyweight wrestler from the mat and throw him on his back. Karelin used it often in competition to break his opponents. He had not lost a wrestling match in 13 years and no one had scored a point on him for six straight years. He won three Olympic gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 1996 and won every world championship in between. He entered the 2000 Olympic games, the last match of his career, as the overwhelming favorite. In fact, several high-ranking members of the Russian government were on hand to witness the crowning achievement of the greatest wrestler the sport had ever known. When he entered the final match, his lifetime record stood at 887-1. The only person standing between Aleksandr Karelin and a 4th consecutive gold medal was American, Rulon Gardner.
Gardner was the youngest of nine children. His parents were farmers in the small town of Afton, Wyoming. He was a big baby who grew exponentially as a boy. Rulon was diagnosed early on with a learning disability and was targeted for special education. His teachers wanted to hold him back after kindergarten. His mother refused to allow that to happen. Instead she provided a response that would become familiar to Rulon throughout his life, "He needs to keep pushing." Rulon was often teased by his peers. They called him Dumbo, Stupid and Fatso. Reflecting on these experiences later in life, Rulon commented, "I simply couldn't learn at their pace. Kids would see that as a weakness and build themselves up by putting me down."
Never Stop Pushing. Work Harder.
There was no refuge for him at home either. He would wake up at 6:30 a.m. everyday. There were cows to milk, animals to feed and crops to water. Irrigation lines had to be moved by hand to cover the 800 acres of farmland. The irrigation lines consisted of aluminum pipe. Each of the 33 pipes weighed about 30 lbs. and extended about 40 feet. Rulon spent much of his day dismantling, moving and assembling the pipe back together. During the winter, he improved his strength by carrying calves into the barn to protect them from the freezing temperatures. Make no mistake about it, there was hard work to do and lots of it.
Never Stop Pushing. Be Committed.
Rulon started wrestling in elementary school. He just wasn't very good. "I wish I could share stories of how wresting gave me all kinds of self-esteem and pride," Rulon reflected. "But the truth is, I was usually the worst wrestler on the team in Star Valley." During his 7th grade year, his club went to a meet in Idaho and finished with a record of 120-2. Rulon lost both of those matches for the team. On the way home, Rulon said this to himself, "That's okay, keep working, never stop pushing, don't lose focus."
Never Stop Pushing. Stay Focused.
Rulon spent his first three years in high school as a member of the junior varsity team. The main reason was that his older brother was also a heavyweight wrestler and Rulon simply couldn't beat him. He made the varsity team his senior year and won the state championship as a heavyweight. Rulon wanted to go to college, but his academic counselor didn't think he was smart enough to succeed in college. "You're just not cut out for college," he told Rulon. "It's just not for you." However, Rulon received a wrestling scholarship to attend Rick's Junior College. He set out to prove everyone wrong, again.
Never Stop Pushing. Believe in Yourself.
It's possible that no one ever worked harder to get passing grades at college. Entering college Rulon was reading at a 5th grade level. He needed academic tutors and study halls. Rulon succeeded and transferred to the University of Nebraska to finish out his collegiate career. During his senior year, he finished 4th in the country as a heavyweight. Two years later he eventually earned his teaching degree. In his autobiography Never Stop Pushing, Rulon wrote, "When I got my degree in the fall of 1996, it was like winning an Olympic medal."
Never Stop Pushing. Go After Your Dreams.
Because Rulon did not win a national championship, he was not pegged as an Olympic hopeful. He really had no reason to continue wrestling. It was at this time, however, that Rulon was introduced to Greco-Roman wrestling. He was a natural. He worked his way up in the ranks and eventually earned his place on the 2000 United States Olympic Greco-Roman Wrestling Team. Yet, he was still an underdog on the world stage. He was recovering from a broken arm and a severely torn groin muscle. A year before the Olympic games, he was soundly beat 5-0 by Aleksandr Karelin. Rulon was on the receiving end of three of his patented lifts. A month before the games, Rulon was pinned by Karelin's under-study, Yur Patrikeev, just 18 seconds into the match. After this match, an American journalist wrote the following of Rulon's chances, "He can't beat even the number two Russian? How can he think about beating Karelin?"
Never Stop Pushing. Work Harder.
Rulon trained harder than ever at the Olympic Training Center. He would wrestle four on one with training partners in a drill called "shark bait." Rulon would wait in the middle as the others would come in and attempt to tear him apart. By the time he reached the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, Australia, Rulon was stronger, tougher and more prepared than ever. Rulon received a favorable draw and immediately noticed that he wouldn't have to face Karelin until the final match, if he got that far. He won his first match 7-2 and his second 6-0. He then won a close match 2-1 over a feisty wrestler from Italy. In the medal round, Rulon won another 3-2 decision, securing at least a silver medal. Now, the only thing standing between a 4th consecutive gold medal for the mighty Karelin was a pudgy farm boy from Wyoming.
Never Stop Pushing. It's Your Turn.
"I had carried cows across icy farm fields. I had gone to college, and graduated," Rulon said before the gold medal match. "Don't tell me about long odds." Rulon began warming up 45 minutes before the match. Karelin, on the other hand, didn't even begin stretching until 10 minutes before the match. Rulon noted that Karelin looked overconfident and even nonchalant. Rulon said to himself, "He thinks this is no big deal." When the wrestlers entered the arena, they were greeted with chants of "USA...USA...USA." At that moment, it began to sink in for Rulon. Those cheers were for him and the tears began streaming down his face.
Rulon began the match in a way that most don't against Karelin - with confidence. Rulon decided to go after him with everything he had and outwork the Russian. The opening period was scoreless. Karelin won the coin flip going into the second period and selected the standing position. Both competitors had each other in a clinch. According to the rules, if your opponent loses their grip, the other wrestler receives a point, and Karelin had the superior grip. "Karelin got this awesome lock on me, really had me good," Rulon said later. "Work! Work!," Rulon said to himself. They entered into a death spin. Both wrestlers momentarily released their grip. The referees couldn't tell who released first. They went to the video replay. After 90 seconds, the referee awarded Rulon 1 point. It was the first time Karelin had been behind in a match in thirteen years.
Never Stop Pushing. You Can Do It.
The match went to a 3-minute overtime. The crowd was in a frenzy shouting, "USA...USA." It was at this moment that Rulon realized something crucial, "Karelin hadn't prepared for this situation." Rulon had the superior conditioning. Karelin won most of his matches with ease and almost never had to wrestle in overtime. Karelin tried his patented reverse flip but couldn't find the strength. With eight seconds remaining, Karelin put his hands on his hips and bowed his head. Rulon Gardner raised his hands in disbelief. This victory is referred to as the "Miracle on the Mat." The referee raised Rulon's hand in victory. Rulon made a throwing motion. "I was throwing away all the negativity over the years, all the times of being told I was stupid, fat or incompetent," Rulon admitted. "Doubters and naysayers, this is for you!"
Never Stop Pushing. You Did It!
Rulon was voted by his US Olympic peers as the flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies, a tremendous honor. By then, the athletes had all learned about his compelling story. They knew of his commitment to his sport and what he had to overcome to win the gold medal for his beloved country. His story continues to inspire us all. Indeed, his whole life he never stopped pushing. Rulon went on to earn a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics after losing a toe from frostbite after a snowmobile accident (but that's another story).