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Rulon Rules Gutsy Rulon Gardner ignored his injuries and won the U.S. trials

For a man who's normally fan-friendly, Rulon Gardner was
noticeably restrained with his handshakes as he passed
well-wishers in the hallways of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis last
Friday. "Need to be careful," the heavyweight Olympic wrestling
champ said, staring at surgical bruises that started at the
knuckles on his right hand and trailed up his massive forearm.
"Just got the pins out last week from my basketball injury."

Injury-prone only when he isn't grappling, Gardner returned to
the mat last weekend and won four matches at the U.S. Olympic
trials to qualify for the Athens Games. In Sunday's best-of-three
final Gardner, 32, twice won 2-1 overtime matches against Dremiel
Byers, a U.S. Army staff sergeant, to earn the trip to what will
be his last competition. "Just getting to these Olympics is more
of a miracle than winning the last one," says Gardner, who broke
Alexander Karelin's 13-year unbeaten streak to earn the gold
medal in Sydney. "It's new life."

At this point his nine lives are pretty much used up. In February
2002 Gardner got lost in the Wyoming wilderness during a
snowmobiling outing and had to have a frostbitten toe amputated
from his right foot after being rescued. While riding his
motorcycle two months ago near his home in Colorado Springs, he
flipped over a car that cut in front of him; he suffered only
road rash after doing a forward roll. "I almost landed on my
head," he jokes, "but some days I wrestle without it anyway."

Three days later, on April 2, Gardner chased a loose ball during
a pickup basketball game and dislocated his wrist. Against
doctor's orders he postponed surgery and competed at the U.S.
nationals in Las Vegas on April 9. Not only did he lose in those
finals to Byers, the 2002 world champion, but he also says he
dislocated his wrist seven times during four matches and two
other times while shaking hands with spectators.

Gardner had three pins inserted in the wrist on April 16 and
barely trained over the next three weeks. The pins were removed
on May 10, 11 days before a meet in which he would have to
survive two elimination matches to get a shot at Byers, who was
seeded straight into the finals.

Gardner took exception when Corey Farkas, his first opponent,
tried to attack his sore hand. "He went for my wrist; I went for
his head," said Gardner, who fired roundhouse slaps at Farkas
before pinning him in the second round.

If ever the wrist would have kept him off the Olympic team, it
would have undone him in the clinch, the position in which
wrestlers bear-hug each other, lock hands behind each other's
backs and earn a point if the opponent breaks his grip first. Yet
Gardner scored three of his four points against Byers on
clinches. "I can grab and push with the wrist," says Gardner. "I
just can't twist it as well."

Given all he has had to endure to qualify for a second Olympics,
he'd better hope there aren't too many more twists between now
and Athens.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY (2) Needing four wins to qualify for Athens, Gardner (top, against Farkas) didn't choke.


The Road to Athens
Kristie Marano (right) missed making weight last Thursday and
missed out on the Olympics on Sunday. Marano, a two-time women's
world champion, weighed in one pound above the 139-pound limit,
which forced her to move up to the 159 class, where she lost two
matches to world silver medalist Toccara Montgomery.... Dennis
Hall dropped down to the 121-pound class and defeated fellow
Olympic silver medalist and training partner Brandon Paulson in a
tiebreaking match to qualify for Athens.