Rulon Gardner and the greatest gold medal upset in Olympic history

29-year-old American Rulon Gardner beat the unbeatable man at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Russian Alexander Karelin, a Greco-Roman wrestling legend who hadn’t been beaten in 15 years, winner of three consecutive gold medals, hadn’t even given up a point in a decade when he met the Wyoming farm boy on the mat.

Karelin was supposed to win his fourth gold medal in the row: an Olympic record and a legendary feat in Greco-Roman wrestling history. And predictably, he didn’t surrender a point in his march toward the gold medal match.

Rulon Gardner, for his part, wasn’t even expected to even make it to the finals. And he had faced Karelin previously in his career, losing 5-0.

Needless to say, the farmboy was a massive underdog entering the gold medal match. Karelin was a titan inside the ring and deserves a place on the list of scariest fighters ever:

Throughout the match, Gardner somehow managed to avoid Karelin’s signature reverse body lift, which had vanquished all opponents. And when Gardner broke out of Karelin’s clinch during the second period, he earned the only point of the match. The super-heavyweight dashed around the mat after the referee raised his hand in a 1-0 victory. He even did a cartwheel, then clutched his gold, weeping.

“When did I actually think I could beat him? Maybe 10 minutes ago. I’ve always been an underdog, every step of my life. I can’t believe I actually won.”

Rulon Gardner

Gardner’s underdog dream turned to a nightmare in the years following his gold medal-winning performance. During a 2002 snowmobiling trip, Gardner became separated from the group in Wyoming. He held out for 18 hours in makeshift shelter, nearly freezing to death. In 2007, Rulon survived a light aircraft crash into Lake Powell in Utah. He swam more than an hour in freezing water to reach the shore.

Gardner ballooned to well over 400 pounds and was a contestant on the Biggest Loser. More recently, he faced bankruptcy. Even so, he’ll remain forever the author of one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

You can watch the entirety of his improbable victory below.

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