UNIVERSITY PARK — Having cut nearly 200 pounds, Rulon Gardner shed 10 more and then his body shut down.
The former Olympic wrestling gold medalist wanted to keep going. He wanted to get down to a weight that would allow him to participate in the 2012 Olympic Trials. At age 40, he wanted nothing more than to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
“It wasn’t me just saying, ‘Oh I’m not ready.’ It was my body saying ‘You will not be ready because if you continue to push it you may do serious damage or die,’” Gardner said.
Even while Gardner’s Olympic comeback was delayed he decided to move to Colorado Springs to be closer to what he loves — the U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
That squad will begin its quest in the Olympic games today as the Greco-Roman tournament gets underway with the women’s and men’s freestyle divisions to follow.
Gardner, who will serve as a television analyst for his second consecutive games following his 2004 retirement, has worked out with members of the Greco-Roman squad, notably heavyweight Dremiel Byers, and is as qualified as any to analyze the U.S. team’s chances.
“I think we have a good chance of winning some medals,” Gardner said. “Everybody’s real optimistic.”
Since the United States earned seven medals in the 2000 games, the Americans have seen their medal counts decline in the two games since.
After winning six medals in 2004, American wrestlers walked away from Beijing with just three medals.
The U.S.’s medal take in 2008 was its lowest total since 1968 when the Americans won just two.
In all summer games since the 1968 games and excluding 2008, the U.S. has earned at least six medals every time with its highest total being 13 in 1984.
“I think if you go down the line, I’ll start with Greco first, I know the coaches are hoping for four or five medals,” Gardner said. “I think realistically, one to three medals. Freestyle you’re probably thinking three to six medals. That’s what they’re shooting for. And then the women’s wrestling, you have four weight classes you’re maybe hoping for two or three medals.”
Gardner joined U.S. national team coach Zeke Jones, agreeing the U.S. team is much more experienced than in past years.
With the exception of three grapplers, the U.S. freestyle, Greco-Roman and women’s team members all have at least four years competing at the international level.
Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, a gold medalist in freestyle at the 2000 Games, said he thinks that experience should pay off.
“There’s no timeline on when you can and can’t win,” Sanderson said. “Some guys, they’re more experienced and I think experience helps, especially with the tactics and the different rules and everything that’s made freestyle a lot more strategy-driven. So the time isn’t going to hurt these guys.”
Medal counts aside, Sanderson said Jones will likely be paying more attention to team points and the final standings, which would be more indicative of how the team performed overall.
“I think the U.S. is going to want three or four medals and a gold medalist or two,” Sanderson said. “But they’re going to be looking more at the team score I think and being in the top three.”
It won’t hurt either that the freestyle team in particular has a handful of wrestlers with multiple international titles and medals on their trophy shelves.
Nittany Lion Wrestling Club member Jake Varner will make his Olympic debut and brings a 2011 World Championships bronze medal with him. Varner’s teammates Tervel Dlagnev and Jake Herbert have won gold and silver medals, respectively at the international level.
As for the most inexperienced wrestler of the U.S. freestyle bunch, former University of Nebraska star Jordan Burroughs? He’s only generated a lot of buzz and is considered by many to be the favorite in the 74-kilogram weight class after spending just two years on the U.S. team.
“He’s extraordinarily talented,” Ken Chertow, who represented the U.S. in the 1988 Olympics said. “Usually it takes years of experience and competition but in his case he’s a special talent.”
Russians are no strangers to talent of that sort.
In the last three Olympic Games, the Russian national team has won nine, 10 and 11 medals, respectively, and are considered among the favorites to win the overall team competition again.
The Russian team will send four of seven wrestlers into competition in freestyle weight classes that have multiple world medals on their resumes. They’ll be led by Besik Kudokhov at 60 kilograms. Kudokhov has won an Olympic bronze in addition to five World Championships gold medals and a silver.
In the Greco-Roman and women’s classifications, Russia will send five wrestlers with nine international medal wins to the mats.
“The international style of wrestling is something they do consistently from the time their 12 years old on,” Chertow said. “Here in our country we put a lot emphasis on college style and high school style wrestling so our guys develop a little slower and a little later. I like our system. But to be the best at freestyle you have to really put a lot of extra time into freestyle wrestling.”
While Sanderson said the Russians, who he described as “tough, tough people,” pride themselves on being great technicians, it helps that they have a much larger talent pool including countries that were former members of the Soviet Union to draw from.
“It’s not just the Russian team it’s actually all the former Russian countries,” Gardner said. “A lot of the former countries, they train together every day. If you don’t make the Russian national team you then go wrestle for Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, you then go to these lesser teams and so even though you’re not the Number 1 Russian you’re still going to the Olympics.”
A squad of U.S. wrestlers beat a young Russian squad 4-3 at the Beat the Streets exhibition match in early June.
While the U.S. team featured four wrestlers who will compete in London — Sam Hazewinkel, Burroughs, Jared Frayer and Dlagnev — the Russian team featured mostly younger wrestlers, none of which made the final Russian Olympic team.
Still, Gardner and Sanderson think some confidence can be gleaned from that match for the U.S. wrestlers who competed.
“The Russians, they want to win five of seven or six of seven or seven of seven. That’s the Russian mentality,” Gardner said. “We have to get that in America and I think by far having that experience from Beat the Streets is going to be a key to a freestyle team getting back to the top.”