Gardner gets upset at 2004 Olympics

Rulon Gardner was in another Olympic wrestling upset — his own.

One of the biggest stars of the 2000 Summer Games, Gardner was thrown to the mat in overtime yesterday by Kazakhstan’s Georgi Tsurtsumia and lost 4-1 in his Greco-Roman semifinal match. He won the bronze medal later in the day, defeating Sajad Barzi of Iran 3-0.

Gardner was as surprised as anyone when Tsurtsumia somehow pulled off the winning 3-point move in their 264 1/2-pound (120kg) match, especially after spending much of the match visibly wearing down the younger wrestler.

Tsurtsumia looked upward at the scoreboard, still unsure for just a moment that he’d won, then jumped jubilantly into his coach’s arms. Gardner seemed confused, too, searching for an explanation as he turned toward his corner and U.S. coach Steve Fraser.

Just like that, Rulon’s remarkable comeback from a spate of injuries and misfortune was finished. Kneeling on the mat as Tsurtsumia celebrated, Gardner thought “It’s over, it’s done,” he said. “Beyond that, I wasn’t even tired.”

Gardner went from obscurity to celebrity after his stunning upset four years ago of the once-invincible Alexander Karelin, generally considered the greatest wrestler of all time. But Gardner has fought through a long succession of physical ailments since Sydney.

He lost a toe — and nearly his life — after a February 2002 snowmobiling accident left him stranded for 18 hours in the wilderness of Wyoming. He survived a motorcycle crash earlier this year, only to severely dislocate his right wrist in a pickup basketball game.

After his loss, Gardner was composed and gracious. He greeted reporters with a “Hey, how are you doing?” then went into a long, clinical explanation of how it happened. It was a far different scene than that of two days before, when U.S. silver medalist Sara McMann bawled her eyes out after losing out on the gold.

The short version of the match from Gardner: He aggressively went at Tsurtsumia, trying to take the lead against a tiring opponent, but left himself unguarded and Tsurtsumia stepped around and took him to the mat.

“One throw and that’s the whole match,” Gardner said. “One mistake.”

Gardner wound on top of Tsurtsumia once they struck the mat, but neither Gardner nor Fraser argued the scoring — even though Gardner, while on the mat, briefly hoped he would get credit for the reversal.

“Look, these guys are good — he was third in the world last year,” Gardner said. “They watch hours of film, their coaches are back there yesterday, yelling, teaching, coaching them, telling them everything to do out there.”

Gardner already knows where he’s going from here: into retirement. He tearfully left his shoes on the mat after the bronze medal match, the traditional sign a wrestler’s career is over.

Early in his semifinal match, he looked to be on track in his quest to become the United States’ first two-time gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling and only the fourth in any kind of wrestling.

Despite being 10 years younger than the 33-year-old Gardner, Tsurtsumia appeared to be tiring out halfway through the match. He was hanging on at the end of the second 3-minute period, so tired that at one point he fled the mat rather than lock up with Gardner. That cost him a point and tied the match 1-1.

Tsurtsumia had scored his only previous point early in the second period when he made Gardner break their clinch.

Gardner knew Tsurtsumia was wearing down, but said, “I knew the (overtime) clinch was coming up, and that’s the tell-all.” It turns out Gardner was right to be wary.

“No regrets,” Gardner said. “I gave it 100 percent and he got me.”

Tsurtsumia was wrestling at the junior level when Gardner beat Karelin to win one of the most unanticipated gold medals in U.S. Olympic history. Karelin is back at these games but only as a spectator, sitting in the upper reaches of the Ano Liossia Wrestling Hall and declining to talk about his loss to Gardner.

Karelin’s successor on the Russian team, world champion Khasan Baroev, won his way into the gold medal match with a 4-0 victory over Barzi.

Gardner beat Tsurtsumia 3-0 in a U.S. tournament last year, but finished only 10th in the world championships while Tsurtsumia was third. In his other major competition this year, Tsurtsumia won the Asian championships in April on his home turf in Kazakhstan.

Another American wrestling medalist also lost Wednesday: 2000 bronze medalist Garrett Lowney, of Freedom, Wis., was eliminated with losses of 3-0 to Cuba’s Ernesto Pena and 4-0 to Hungary’s Lajos Virag in pool matches at 211 1/2 pounds (96kg).

Jim Gruenwald, sixth in the 2000 Games and fourth in the 2003 world championships, rallied to beat Hugo Passos of Portugal 12-7 in his first match at 132 pounds (60kg) and will meet Eusebiu Diaconnu of Romania later Wednesday. Gruenwald, from Milwaukee, advances to the quarterfinals if he wins.

There will be no third consecutive Olympic gold for Turkey’s Hamza Yerlikaya, who lost 3-0 to 2002 world champion Ara Abrahamian of Sweden in the 185-pound (84kg) semifinals. Yerlikaya, 28, has not finished higher than sixth in the world since the Sydney Games.