Gardner set to meet his last match

August 24, 2004|By Bill Briggs | Bill Briggs,THE DENVER POST

ATHENS - Hours before the final meet of his crash-bang career, Rulon Gardner decided yesterday to stay out with the boys.

It was not a popular move with his wife, Lisa, who wanted to have dinner with the defending gold medalist. Gardner just swallowed hard and said no. Instead, he dined on Greek meats and pasta with teammates.

"This is what I have to do," he told her.

"Well," she said, "you know I'm going to be sad."

"I have two days left as a wrestler," Gardner said. "The rest of my life will be with you."

Gardner, 33, hopes the rest of his life starts tomorrow night, after the Greco-Roman gold-medal match in the 120-kilogram weight class. If he makes it that far, the American said he will leave his shoes on the center mat - every retiring wrestler's final act.

If he loses before seeing gold, he'll be thinking of another, darker tradition in his sport.

"They used to wrestle to the death. I look at it that way, too," Gardner said. "If I don't win this, it's the death of my wrestling career."

No doom and gloom yet.

Gardner was smiling after two pieces of good news yesterday. First, he made weight. He has been feasting on salads and honeydew melons to stay at the limit, 265 pounds. Then, he learned his preliminary draw - a four-man, round-robin tournament.

The field seems favorable, he said. Gardner beat Bulgarian Serguey Moreyko at the 2001 world championships, throwing him out of bounds late in the match to notch a 3-0 victory. Mindaugas Mizgaitis of Lithuania is "still young, and I still see him not being mean and nasty enough," Gardner said. Poland's Marek Mikulski, a soldier by trade, is new on the scene.

"I think it's a really good draw," Gardner said. "I could have had a stud in my pool."

If he beats those three, Gardner will be on to the semifinals tomorrow.

All the injuries he sustained since winning gold at Sydney in 2000 have healed, he said. The list is now famous: toe amputation because of frostbite suffered 17 months after Sydney, scrapes because of a motorcycle accident last spring and a dislocated wrist suffered in a pickup basketball game last spring.

When Gardner's colorful run finally ends today or tomorrow, he plans to hang out with the 16 members of his family who flew to Athens to cheer him on. And he'll spend time with Lisa.

"After this," he said, "we're just going to be tourists."

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