When American gymnast Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify for this week’s Women’s All-Around Final, it was a shock to many. Not least of all because Wieber was the event’s defending World Champion. Imagine then, how disappointing it was twelve years ago for Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin. Karelin wasn’t merely the defending World Champion, but the three time defending gold medalist. He was undefeated in his entire thirteen year career. To put that in perspective, imagine if Michael Phelps had never lost a race. Not just a gold medal race, any race. Any prelim or trial or qualifier since he first got in the pool. That is the kind of dominance that was Alexander Karelin.
So when Karelin crashed to the mat on that day in Sydney it sent shockwaves throughout the Olympic world. So who was it who took down the “Siberian Bear”? A longtime rival who finally bested the champ? An up and coming superstar who was ready for the torched to be passed? None of the above. It was an American farm kid from the middle of nowhere who had no major tournament wins to his name. By all accounts Rulon Gardner had no chance to beat Karelin. Until he did. One gold medal, one Wheaties box, and one flag-bearing role at the Closing Ceremony later, Gardner epitomized the spirit of the games. A virtual no-name who had been thrust into world stardom in a manner only the Olympics can provide.
The number of people touched and inspired by Gardner’s victory cannot ever be known. Nor could Gardner imagine that he would beat the impossible many more times in life, in ways that made the Karelin defeat look easy. Less than two years after his triumph he was involved in a snowmobile accident that left him struggling to survive in subzero temperatures. He lost a toe to frostbite, and was near death from severe hypothermia. He beat that too. Returning to the mat in Athens to win a bronze medal. Gardner retired from wrestling that day, but his heroics continued. He survived a plane crash in 2007, and inspired millions by losing nearly 200 lbs for a reality TV show just last year.
Even if Gardner hadn’t done those things, the “Miracle on the Mat” (as it was soon dubbed) would still be notable. It was arguably the greatest upset in Olympic history. It was every cliché sports underdog movie put together, except it was real. If the IOC were ever to commission a monument to the Olympic virtues, they could do much worse than a statue of Rulon Gardner, the nobody Wyoming farm boy, from a town of 5,000, holding the American flag aloft in triumph. Over, a decade later this moment still amazes and inspires.