Rulon closing in on repeat

ATHENS, Greece -- For the first time since winning a gold medal in Seoul in 1988, Alexander Karelin, now retired, entered an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling venue on Tuesday without the title of defending champion.

That's because American Rulon Gardner stole the title from Karelin in Sydney, beating the Russian in their final four years ago to notch wrestling's greatest upset ever.

And though Gardner is the super heavyweight (264½ pounds) wrestler to beat in Athens, he's approaching what likely will be his last Games as if he's still the underdog.

"When you walk in the prep area and the warm-up mat, and you see the Russian and the Cuban and the Hungarian and all these studs," Gardner said, "you know that if you don't go out there prepared to wrestle you're going to lose."

A blind draw placed Gardner in a four-man pool, requiring him to wrestle three times on Tuesday to advance to the semifinals. Karelin watched from the stands, refusing to comment, as Gardner won all three of his matches.Gardner next faces Kazakhstan's Georgi Tsurtsumia on Wednesday.

With three matches on Tuesday's schedule, Gardner took a conservative approach, utilizing only the moves required to win, careful not to unveil anything his future opponents could use against him.

"I've held some things back," he said. "If you go out and show everybody what you have, they go home and watch film tonight then talk about it tomorrow. These people are so smart at learning your weakness that it's one mistake and the match is over."

Two years ago, Gardner came perilously close to losing the opportunity to defend his Olympic title -- and his life. A snowmobile accident left him stranded overnight on the side of a mountain in sub-zero temperatures. Doctors initially thought the frostbite would claim both of his feet. He lost the middle toe on his right foot instead.

He competed at this year's national championships while still recovering from road rash suffered in a motorcycle accident and a dislocated left wrist, which he suffered in a pickup basketball game.

None of the incidents -- or their lasting effects on his body -- seemed to bother Gardner on Tuesday.

"I walk out there," he said, "and I don't sense anything except for my opponent, and that builds a hunger inside you."

While Gardner recovered from his injuries, the competition advanced. Another American took over as world champion and then a Russian took it from him. Gardner said the field in Athens is tougher than in Sydney. He expects the final match will feature wrestlers of equal ability instead of one who is an overwhelming favorite, like Karelin was in 2000.

Gardner's victory over Karelin was immediately christened the "Miracle on the Mat" and earned him the honor of carrying the American flag in the closing ceremony. Yet because of his physique -- he's a barrel-chested man with baby fat and love handles -- he's not always recognized in the athletes' village -- except by Russians.

"Not many people put two and two together," he said. "A few people look and try to figure out who I am. A lot of the Russians know who I am, and they just kind of look and go about their way. I don't know what they're thinking, but it's all about respect."

And that's all Gardner has for Karelin. Even if Gardner becomes the first American to win back-to-back gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, he'll remain in the back seat to Karelin in the annals of history.

The two men haven't crossed paths since they walked off the mat in Sydney, but Gardner is looking forward to the opportunity on Wednesday.

"I hope I can walk up and shake his hand," Gardner said, "because I still think he's the best ever."