ELKO — Usually the mention of gold in Elko follows a discussion of mining.
On Saturday, gold was referencing a caliber of athlete and an opportunity to learn from a great one.
It is a special occasion when athletes are able to spend two days going through drills with an Olympic gold medalist from their sport. About 100 northeastern Nevada youth wrestlers got such an experience as Rulon Gardner worked out with the wrestlers Saturday and Sunday at Flag View Intermediate School.
Gardner won Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 when he upset Russia’s Alexander Karelin in the finals of the Greco-Roman wrestling 130 kilogram weight class. Four years later, he also earned a bronze medal.
Now, he wants to inspire the next generation of grapplers, and so he made the trip to Elko.
“We’re always trying to expand and trying to show why we think this is one of the best sports,” Gardner said. “Wrestling teaches you a lot of interpersonal skills, it allows you to become self sufficient, you learn how to set goals, you push yourself.”
The camp focused a great deal of time on learning skills and techniques of the sport. As an individual sport, wrestlers can only draw upon their individual knowledge and skills. Without teammates to back up a wrestler, wins and loses are all on the individual. Gardner said this is why it is important that wrestlers are constantly learning and developing.
In addition to teaching, Gardner hopes his visit will provide motivation for the young wrestlers to continue in the sport.
“On the Olympic team, we all had monumental turning points, and hopefully this might be for some of these kids,” Gardner said. “Maybe a kid from Elko will go on to the Olympics.”
Gardner said his turning point came in junior high school. He was on a team with about 40 other grapplers, and they had just finished at a meet. Everyone on the team went unbeaten save one — Gardner.
“I was razed the whole way home,” he recalls. “So I asked myself why am I doing this, and I knew I was doing it because I love it.”
He admitted wrestling was a way to get off the farm in Wyoming, and he parlayed his skills into collegiate wrestling scholarships at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho (now Brigham Young University-Idaho) and the University of Nebraska.
“I wasn’t a great wrestler in college, but I wanted to be,” he said. “I wanted to be a coach. I wanted to be a better teacher than a wrestler.”
Gardner’s drive to succeed led him to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA championships in 1993, but his career-defining match came seven years later.
In the gold-medal match, Karelin was seen as unbeatable. The Russian was undefeated in 13 years of international competition and had not given up a point to an opponent in six years coming into the contest.
Gardner’s confidence did not waver, and he hopes to instill that in the young wrestlers he teaches.
“When you teach a kid a skill, you want him to master the skill, but at the end of the day, they need confidence in themselves,” he said. “I want them to feel if he can do it, I can do it. If Rulon can beat the big Russian, I can beat my nemesis too.”
While it might take years to discover what each young wrestler took away from the camp, they all appeared to enjoy their time with a legend of the sport.