By Doug Fitzgerald, The Gazette –
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The most recognizable name in American wrestling was back on the mat for the first time since 2004 as Rulon Gardner competed for Team USA on Saturday in the Kiki Cup at the Olympic Training Center.
The Kiki Cup, a “friendly” dual meet, featured four USA teams and four international teams participating in Greco-Roman dual meet. The teams competing were Italy, India, Spain and a mixed international team made up India, Greece and Slovenia.
Gardner won all four matches in which he competed and did not surrender a point.
“My performance today, I felt was pretty good,” Gardner said. “For me to be able to come back here to get back into the sport of wrestling after eight years, this has been a pretty amazing experience.”
His path to this point has also been amazing. After winning the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Gardner put on more than 200 pounds, peaking at 474. That prompted him to go on the reality TV show “The Biggest Loser,” in which contestants compete to lose weight. Gardner withdrew from the show shortly before the season ended in May, citing personal reasons.
It also put him near the weight he was when he claimed Olympic gold by beating Alexander Karelin, who had been unbeaten in 13 years of international competition, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
“The road back to wrestling has been filled with a lot of doubt from the different people around me, from coaches to other contestants,” Gardner said. “They’re going, ‘You’re old; you’re not the person you used to be.’”
The doubt seemed justified when Gardner realized after beginning his training that many of the 188 pounds he dropped in the 175 days he was on the show were muscle, not fat. He estimated that he had lost 60 pounds of muscle, which prompted an aggressive strength program that regained much of his power.
“Now that I’ve got the muscle back on, I want to lean down the fat and truly be healthy again,” Gardner said.
Gardner still has to shed around 30 pounds to get to the Greco-Roman maximum of 120 kilos (264.5 pounds). The extra weight is why he will not be able to compete at the OTC’s Dave Schultz Memorial International on Feb. 2-4. But the Kiki Cup was a friendly in which no weigh-ins were required, opening the door for Gardner’s return to competition.
And compete he did.
Gardner opened with a 1-0, 2-0 victory over Dharmender Dalal. He was more dominant and more technical in a 2-0, 7-0 decision over India’s Pal Rishi.
He showed more of his old form as the day progressed, taking a 4-0, 6-0 decision over Spain’s Andres Bernardino. Against Italy’s Daniele Ficara Rocco, Gardner won 3-0, 6-0.
The USA No. 1 team, which features wrestlers favored to make the U.S. Olympic team, was also sharp, winning all four of its matches.
But while he still has a ways to go (he estimates he’s at about 80 percent physically), Saturday belonged to Gardner.
“I feel like I’m alive again,” he said. “It’s a moral victory but I don’t want to just have small victories, I’m looking for the opportunity to go back to the Olympics and hopefully bring another medal back to America.”