Gardner Story

The Ann Arbor News, July 4, 2001

Learning from the best
Olympic champion Gardner teaches at camp

By Rob Hoffman
News Sports Reporter

ADRIAN - Phil Millerov is not used to be being swept off his feet.

After all, the 19-year-old Caro native finished his high school wrestling career by recording 160 pins, a former state record. At 275 pounds, he's too beefy for most opponents to pin - let alone budge.

All that changed Tuesday inside the Adrian College gymnasium when Millerov was tossed around like a wet towel by someone who knows a thing or two about handling big guys on the mat. His name? Rulon Gardner, the 290-pound Wyoming dairy farmer who shocked the world by defeating Russian Alexander Karelin 1-0 to win the Greco-Roman super-heavyweight gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Since handing the now-retired Karelin his first loss in 14 years, the 29-year-old Gardner has been one of the most visible American athletes who competed in Sydney - carrying the U.S. flag during closing ceremonies; signing endorsement contracts with Sony, Dr. Scholl's and the National Dairy Council (of course); launching a lucrative career as a motivational speaker; and even winning $125,000 on an athletes edition of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

Thanks to his one-day appearance at Steve Fraser's Michigan Wrestling Camp, Gardner was back on the mat, showing young wrestling hopefuls a little of what it takes to bring home the gold.

And that meant that Millerov, a camp counselor and the second-largest person in the gymnasium, couldn't escape from becoming Gardner's tackling dummy for the day.

“We're going to get mean, we're going to get violent: That's the way I wrestle," Gardner told more than 60 teen-agers, who sat in a circle around him.

Whomp. With one nearly effortless move, Gardner threw Millerov to the mat like a pizza baker slamming down a blob of dough.

“Practice patience,” Gardner said. “One move or one throw won't do it.”

Whomp. Again, Millerov found himself with a perfect view of the ceiling.

Gardner turned to his audience. “His eyes went like that a little bit,” he joked, making a widening motion with his fingers. “They did, didn't they?”

Lots of nods all around.

In between making Millerov his helpless victim, Gardner also played nonstop coach for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon with the camp's pre-teens. As campers were split into pairs, he walked around the room, watching them repeat a move he had just gone over, patting them on the back, making jokes, issuing advice and even correcting mistakes with a hands-on demonstration or two.

Gardner noticed that Nick Campau, 16, of Port Huron wasn't driving his hip into his partner enough during a takedown drill. Campau was immediately shown how the maneuver should be executed properly with a restrained, yet effective, move.

“Pretty forceful, wasn't it?” Gardner asked Campau as he got up from the mat.

“Just a little bit,” Campau said, grinning sheepishly.

Campau repeated the drill, this time digging into his partner's midsection more.

“Beautiful,” Gardner said. “You got it?”

“Yeah, I got it,” was the reply.

Gardner visited the camp as a favor to former U-M wrestler Fraser, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist who now coaches the U.S. team. Before lunch, Gardner sat at a table and sold T-shirts with his likeness, signed autographs and posed for photos. Sitting on the same table was Gardner's gold medal, which has been encased in a small box ever since a friend dropped it and gave it a ding.

Two months from now, Gardner will compete in the world Greco-Roman wrestling championships in New York City as one of the favorites. Quite a change from someone who, just over a year ago, was simply hoping to gain a spot on the U.S. team.

“Everything that has happened is just unreal to me,” he said. “It's a little weird to look around and say you beat the best wrestler in the world … Now, every desire I've had has been achieved.”

Campers such as Ryan Kacafirek, 17, of Port Huron hope they can say the same in the future. In the meantime, Kacafirek enjoyed getting a day's worth of tips from the Olympian.

“I liked learning the throws,” he said. “It will help me a lot.”