RAMSEY: 7 great American Olympic wrestling moments

February 14, 2013
photo - Rulon Gardner celebrates upset victory. Photo by
Rulon Gardner celebrates upset victory. Photo by  

1. Sydney, 2000 Rulon’s unforgettable upset

Alexander Karelin ranks among the greatest Olympians of all time. He’s also among history’s finest Greco-Roman wrestlers. He won three gold medals. He won 11 world championships. As he prepared to wrestle American Rulon Gardner, Karelin had never lost an international match and had not lost any matches, period, in the past 13 years.

Karelin was a bald, sculpted competitor. Gardner, not nearly as svelte, had been compared to TV’s Hoss Cartwright.

“When I stepped on the mat, I had no idea, had no clue that I could win,” Gardner said Tuesday from his home in Logan, Utah. “But my coaches told me to walk out there like you’re going to win and compete like it’s your Olympics and that’s what I did.

“He was expected to win. He was expected to be the champion. Being there, for me, was enough. What do I have to lose?”

This attitude carried him to victory. Gardner delivered one of the great upsets in Olympic history, defeating Karelin 1-0.

2. Beijing 2008, Cejudo takes tough road to gold

Henry Cejudo, who graduated from Coronado High School, faced a fearsome path to gold. To earn a trip to China for the Olympics, he had to defeat Stephen Abas in the U.S. trials. Abas had won silver in the 2004 games in Athens. Cejudo, in a mild upset, defeated Abas.

In the battle for the gold in the 121-pound weight class, Cejudo struggled to victory over Japan’s Tomohiro Matsunaga. After the victory, Cejudo sprinted around the mat wrapped in an American flag.

“I really believed in myself and I did it,” Cejudo said.

Cejudo had taken an unlikely journey to his Olympic triumph. He grew up poor in Phoenix, surrounded by chaos. His father had died of heart failure a year before the trip to Beijing.

He conquered all obstacles.

“He’s the American Dream,” said his personal coach Terry Brands.

3. Los Angeles, 1984 Blatnick defeats cancer, wins gold

In 1982, Greco-Roman wrestler Jeff Blatnick was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which attacks the spleen and other organs. His spleen and appendix were removed, and he underwent radiation.

He refused to surrender his goal. Blatnick had made the American team in 1980, but missed the Games because of the Jimmy Carter-ordered boycott.

In the 248 final in Los Angeles, Blatnick defeated Sweden’s Tomas Johansson. When the match ended, Blatnick fell to his knees and wept. It was one of the signature moments of the ’84 Games.

His win is made even more impressive by a development after the match. Johansson tested positive for steroids and forfeited his silver medal.

“If I didn’t have cancer, nobody would have known who I was,” Blatnick said in a 2007 interview. “Not a lot of wrestlers make the news.”

Blatnick died from complications after heart surgery in October.

4. Seoul, 1988: Smith takes painful route to gold

Wrestling takes a toll on its competitors. There’s no doubt about that. Spend time with former wrestlers, and you’ll notice bent fingers and inflated ears that resemble cauliflowers.

But even by wrestling’s harsh standards, John Smith’s ride to gold in 1988 was impressive. He suffered a fractured nose in an early match, which left the mat covered with blood. But that’s not all. He arrived in Seoul with an abscessed left ear. In the seven days leading up to his gold medal 136 match with Stepan Sarkisyan of the Soviet Union, Smith’s ear was drained seven times.

Moments after Smith earned his gold medal, he grabbed an Uncle Sam hat and walked proudly around the mat. Smith grew up in Del City, Okla., where he trained with his brothers.

After his victory, Smith was asked what he thought was going on in Del City.

“I hope they’re having a party,” he said. “That’s what I’d be doing.”

Smith won gold again at Barcelona in 1992. He’s now the wrestling coach at Oklahoma State. The field house at Del City High School, his alma mater, has been renamed. It’s now the John Smith Field House.

5. Munich, 1972 Gable’s devotion finally pays off

Wrestlers are known for their devotion to training. They run ridiculous distances. They buffet their body daily in the quest for perfection.

Dan Gable has a special place in wrestling history. When neighbors drove by his home in Waterloo, Iowa, they would look over to see the youthful Gable wearing a rubber suit and arm and leg weights while he mowed the lawn.

He enjoyed a sensational career, winning 299 of 308 matches from 1963 to 1973. His journey to Munich marked the highlight of his obsessive quest to grab everything in wrestling. He defeated Japan’s Kikuo Wada in the 149 finals. Gable later coached Iowa to 15 NCAA titles.

6. Los Angeles, 1932 Van Bebber walks his way to victory

The Olympics were not always extremely organized. At the 1932 Games, Van Bebber was awaiting his gold medal 158 match. He thought the biggest match of his life was a few hours away.

Then he found out the match started in an hour, six miles away. He had no car. Van Bebber immediately began to walk to the venue while also trying to hitch hike. After a two-mile walk, he was picked up by a sympathetic motorist. Van Bebber arrived just in time to defeat Canada’s Daniel MacDonald.

7. 1972, Munich A big man’s finest hour

Chris Taylor was huge. He stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 412 pounds. He won an NCAA heavyweight title for Iowa State.

At Munich, Taylor won bronze, but there was always a might-have-been element to his performance. In the first round of competition against Oleksander Medved of the Soviet Union, Taylor was penalized a point for passivity by referee Umit Demirag. Taylor and his coaches were outraged, and Demirag was later dismissed as a referee, according to "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics."

But the point stood. Medved went on to win the gold.

Taylor later became a professional wrestler, often competing in downtown Denver. He died in 1979 of heart failure. He was only 29. Weight limits have since been placed on competitors in the heavyweight division.

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