One of the biggest stars of the 2000 Summer Games, Gardner was thrown to the mat in overtime Wednesday by Kazakhstan's Georgi Tsurtsumia and lost 4-1 in his Greco-Roman semifinal match. He will wrestle for the bronze medal later in the day.
Gardner was as surprised as anyone when Tsurtsumia somehow pulled off the winning 3-point move in their 264½-pound match, especially after spending much of the match visibly wearing down the younger wrestler.
Tsurtsumia looked upward at the scoreboard, still unsure for just a moment that he'd won, then jumped jubilantly into his coach's arms. Gardner seemed confused, too, searching for an explanation as he turned toward his corner and U.S. coach Steve Fraser.
Just like that, Rulon's remarkable comeback from a spate of injuries and misfortune was finished. Kneeling on the mat as Tsurtsumia celebrated, Gardner thought "It's over, it's done," he said. "Beyond that, I wasn't even tired."
Minutes later, Gardner was composed and gracious to his opponent. He greeted reporters with a "Hey, how are you doing?" then went into a long, clinical explanation of how it happened. It was a far different scene than that of two days before, when U.S. silver medalist Sara McMann bawled her eyes out after losing out on the gold.
The short version of the match from Gardner: He aggressively went at Tsurtsumia, trying to take the lead against a tiring opponent, but left himself unguarded and Tsurtsumia stepped around and took him to the mat.
"One throw and that's the whole match," Gardner said. "One mistake."
Gardner wound on top of Tsurtsumia once they struck the mat, but neither Gardner nor Fraser argued the scoring — even though Gardner, while on the mat, briefly hoped he would get credit for the reversal.
"Look, these guys are good — he was third in the world last year," Gardner said. "They watch hours of film, their coaches are back there yesterday, yelling, teaching, coaching them, telling them everything to do out there."
Gardner already knows where he's going from here: into retirement. He plans to leave his shoes on the mat after the bronze medal match, the traditional sign that a wrestler's career is over.
Gardner went from obscurity to celebrity after his stunning upset of the once-invincible Alexander Karelin, generally considered the greatest wrestler of all time. But Gardner has fought through a long succession of physical ailments — one life-threatening — since Sydney.
He lost a toe — and nearly his life — after a February 2002 snowmobiling accident left him stranded for 18 hours in the wilderness of Wyoming. He survived a motorcycle crash earlier this year, only to severely dislocate his right wrist in a pickup basketball game.
Early in his semifinal match Wednesday, he looked to be on track in his quest to become the United States' first two-time gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling and only the fourth in any kind of wrestling.
Despite being 10 years younger than the 33-year-old Gardner, Tsurtsumia appeared to be tiring out halfway through the match. He was hanging on at the end of the second 3-minute period, so tired that at one point he fled the mat rather than lock up with Gardner. That cost him a point and tied the match 1-1.
Tsurtsumia had scored his only previous point early in the second period when he made Gardner break their clinch.
Gardner said he knew Tsurtsumia was wearing down, but said, "I knew the (overtime) clinch was coming up, and that's the tell-all." It turns out Gardner was right to be wary.
"No regrets," Gardner said. "I gave it 100 percent and he got me."
Tsurtsumia was wrestling at the junior level when Gardner beat Karelin to win one of the most unanticipated gold medals in U.S. Olympic history. Karelin is back at these games but only as a spectator, sitting in the upper reaches of the Ano Liossia Wrestling Hall and declining to talk about his loss to Gardner.
Karelin's successor on the Russian team, world champion Khasan Baroev, won his way into the gold medal match with a 4-0 victory over surprise semifinalist Sajad Barzi of Iran.
Gardner beat Tsurtsumia 3-0 in a U.S. tournament last year, but went on to finish only 10th in the world championships while Tsurtsumia finished third. In his other major competition this year, Tsurtsumia won the Asian championships in April on his home turf in Kazakhstan.
Another American wrestling medalist also lost Wednesday: 2000 bronze medalist Garrett Lowney was beaten 3-0 by Cuba's Ernesto Pena in their first pool match. If he doesn't win the pool, Lowney has no chance of getting another medal.
In other news from the Games:
Track & Field
Four-time world 1,500 champion Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, a heartbreak loser at the last two Olympics, held off Bernard Lagat down the stretch to claim gold in the event in 3 minutes, 34.18 seconds.
El Guerrouj edged Lagat by .12 seconds. Rui Silva of Portugal won the bronze. El Guerrouj has lost just four races in the last eight years, but two of those defeats came at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia broke the world record in the women's pole vault for the fourth time this year, easily clearing 16 feet, 1-1/4 inches to take the gold medal Tuesday night.
Before her record vault, Isinbayeva celebrated clinching the Olympic title after the final failed attempt by her last remaining competitor, teammate Svetlana Feofanova.
Isinbayeva then cleared the height without touching the bar, bettering her own record of 16 feet, 3/4 inches set in London on July 30. The vault also broke by a wide margin the inaugural Olympic record of 15 feet, 1 inch; the event debuted four years ago in Sydney.
Feofanova, the 2003 world champion, won the silver with a vault of 15 feet, 7 inches. Anna Rogowska of Poland took bronze with 15 feet, 5 inches.
Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic won the gold in the decathlon with an Olympic-record score of 8,893. Bryan Clay of Azusa, Calif., got the silver with 8,820 and Dmitriy Karpov of Kazakhstan won the bronze with 8,725.
American Joanna Hayes of Los Angeles won the gold in the 100-meter hurdles in an Olympic-record time of 12.37 seconds. Olena Krasovska of Ukraine got the silver medal and Melissa Morrison of Columbia, S.C., won the bronze.
Tonique Williams-Darling of the Bahamas won the gold medal in the 400-meter run with a time of 49.41 seconds. Ana Guevara of Mexico got the silver medal and Natalya Antyukh of Russia won the bronze.
Kenyans swept the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Ezekiel Kemboi won the gold in 8:05.81. Brimin Kipruto got the silver medal and Paul Kipsiele Koech took the bronze.
The Hungarian gold medalist in the men's discus was stripped of his title for failing to provide a drug test sample in an apparent attempt to beat the screening system.
Robert Fazekas, who won the discus on Monday night with an Olympic record throw of 232 feet, 8 inches, was disqualified from the competition and expelled from the games by the International Olympic Committee executive board.
He is the second athlete in two days to lose a gold medal for doping. Russian shot putter Irina Korzhanenko's gold was revoked Monday after she tested positive for steroids.
In another case Tuesday at the drug-tainted Athens Games, Belarusian high jumper Aleksey Lesnichiy was kicked out after testing positive for the steroid clenbuterol, the IOC said. He failed to clear a height in Friday's qualifying round.
Fazekas never got to wear the gold medal because the award ceremony wasn't held until Tuesday night. The title went instead to Lithuania's Virgilijus Alekna, who had finished second with a throw of 229 feet, 3 inches. Another Hungarian, Zoltan Kovago, was bumped from bronze to silver. Fourth-place finisher Aleksander Tammert of Estonia moved to third.
Argentina will meet Paraguay in an all South American Olympic final.
The Iraqi soccer team's improbable run at the gold medal ended with a loss to Paraguay in Thessaloniki. The Iraqis still have a chance for a bronze, which would be their war-weary nation's first medal in 44 years.
Paraguay made history of its own, getting two goals from Jose Cardozo and one from Fredy Bareiro to advance to Saturday's gold-medal game. Gold or silver, it will be the first Olympic medal of any sort for Paraguay. Iraq and Italy will play for the bronze Friday night.
Budding star Carlos Tevez scored his seventh goal in five matches to give Argentina the lead over Italy in the 16th minute. River Plate's Luis Gonzalez scored in the 69th and Mariano Gonzalez put the game out of reach six minutes from the end. Argentina has outscored the opposition 16-0 in five matches.
Top-ranked American beach volleyball pair Misty May and Kerri Walsh defeated second-seeded Brazilians Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar 21-17, 21-11 , capping the most dominant run in the sport's history with a gold medal.
Earlier, Americans Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs won the bronze medal, beating Australia's Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson 21-18, 15-21, 15-9.
May and Walsh didn't drop a set in Athens, with the 6-foot-3 Walsh dominating at the net and the quick May scrambling and diving for every dig.
On match point in a surprisingly lopsided final, Walsh hammered a spike just inside in the line. Walsh fell to her knees as May ran to embrace her. They raced to the stands and grabbed American flags as "Born in the USA" blared over the speakers at the Olympics' rowdiest venue.
May and Walsh have been gold-medal favorites since last year, when they began an unprecedented 90-match, 15-tournament winning streak.
Women's Water Polo
Manuela Zanchi scored with two seconds left to give Italy an upset victory over the world champion Americans, setting up a matchup against Greece in the women's final.
Greece beat defending Olympic champion Australia. The United States will play Australia for bronze in a rematch of the Sydney 2000 final.
"I'm very shocked. I didn't expect to lose with two seconds to go. I really thought we could hold them off," said American attacker Brenda Villa. "Our goal was the gold medal, but that's gone. We came here for a medal and we must finish that — only now it's for bronze."
Russia scored twice in extra time to edge Hungary for fifth place after their game was tied 10-10 at the end of regulation.
Erika Coimbra scored 20 points to lead unbeaten Brazil to a five-set quarterfinal victory over the United States.
The Americans overcame erratic serving and several unforced errors to rally from two sets down and send it to a fifth set. The drama quickly disappeared when the Brazilians took an 8-2 lead, though, and the gold medal hopes of the U.S. team vanished a few minutes later.
The United States and Brazil were the top two ranked teams in the world when the tournament began, but the Americans lost three of their five preliminary matches, and got stuck with the lowest seed for the quarterfinals.
The Brazilians advance to play Russia in the semifinals on Thursday.
China moved a step closer to its first gold medal in volleyball since 1984, sweeping Japan in three sets in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
Lina Wang and Ping Zhang scored 12 points apiece for China, whose superior blocking and patient, controlled offense — guided by setter Feng Kun — proved too much for the Japanese.
China will face Cuba in the semifinals. The Cubans outlasted Italy in five sets, led by 22 points from Zoila Barros Fernandez.
Ekaterina Gamova, Russia's 6-foot-8 opposite, had 24 points to lead her team in a sweep of South Korea.