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|Gardner roasted by friends at the Night and Drive of Champions at the Hamilton Farm Golf Course in Gladstone, N.J.|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
The jokes were hilarious, the laughs plentiful and the goodwill everywhere, as Olympic and World champion Rulon Gardner was roasted by a group of friends at the highly successful Night and Drive of Champions at the Hamilton Farm Golf Course in Gladstone, N.J., May 8.
People came from all across the nation to share in the festivities, while raising funds for the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Wrestling. The roast was a highlight of a full day of activities, which included championship golf, an exquisite banquet, a silent and public auction and a chance to celebrate the sport of wrestling and the Olympic spirit.
Gardner had to face a panel of six celebrities, all who were prepared to poke fun at the popular Gardner, the two-time Olympic medalist who has made as much news with his colorful life and personality off the mat as he made with his championship performances on the mat.
Serving as the moderator and ringmaster for the roast was WNBC sportscaster Bruce Beck, who promised a "massive train wreck" and called Gardner "the easiest target in the history of roasts." Beck got the evening started with a few zingers of his own, then explained to everybody why they were there.
"We are here to support the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement," said Beck. "The sport of wrestling will be the vehicle for your generous support of our Olympic athletes."
The first panelist was USA Wrestling National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser, a 1984 Olympic Greco-Roman champion and the coach who guided Gardner to his Olympic gold and bronze medals, as well as a World Championship title.
Fraser opened the evening picking on Gardner's feet, the product of a terrifying night lost in the mountains on a snowmobile trip in 2002, where he suffered severe frostbite and lost a toe to amputation. Fraser told the audience about Gardner's "nine toes."
"He gave a whole new meaning to Fred Flintstone feet," said Fraser. "You have got to stop showing those feet to everybody. Put that toe back in the refrigerator."
Fraser said when Gardner tried to meet a woman, he would suggest "dinner, a movie, and to go back to my place and I'll show you my toe."
He also noted how Gardner has gained some weight since his career ended, and told about a workout they had during the NCAA Championships in March. Fraser talked about how difficult it was for him to lock a move on Gardner. "I could barely get my fingers locked together… and I was trying to go for a headlock," he cracked.
Next on the dais was Olympic weightlifting star Shane Hamman, a fellow super heavyweight and a friend of Gardner's from the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
Hamman told a story about his reaction to the motorcycle accident Gardner had a few weeks prior to the Olympic Trials in 2004, when Gardner was cut off by a car, did a complete flip over his Harley Davidson, and barely missed severe injury. Hamman was told about the incident by others at the Olympic Training Center, who had become used to the wild "Rulon stories." His immediate reaction? "I asked, 'how is the Harley?" quipped Hamman.
Hamman, who is one of the biggest and strongest men on the planet, had a series of jokes about Gardner's weight. "There was a point in our training when I outweighed Rulon by 90 pounds. He is about to pass me," said Hamman.
He then told a story about how Gardner asked for a ride to the Oklahoma City airport from Hamman, who lives in the state, and how he needed to stop at a gas station to get some aspirin for a headache. Gardner bought a bottle of medicine, plus a number of big-sized snacks. "Two miles later, the tylenol bottle was empty, the food was all gone, and Rulon was asking 'Are there any restaurants at the airport?'" quipped Hamman.
Next up was the legendary Dan Gable, an Olympic and World champion himself and one of the greatest college and Olympic coaches of all time. Gable compared his own life and wrestling career with Gardner's, pointing out the differences on their roads to the top of the sport.
Gable talked about how he got stonger and built himself up in college, while Gardner "continued to fill out in all the wrong places." Gable talked about how as he grew up he enjoyed his toys, such as dirt bikes and go-carts, then ribbed Gardner about his many mishaps when he had fun. Gable showed a picture from the Denver Post of the massive Gardner prior to the Olympic Trials on a wakeboard. "Coaches, I don't know how you ever let him get on that thing," joked Gable. "Rulon loves to play with his toys, but he never learned how to use them," laughed Gable.
The next celebrity to roast Rulon was motion picture star Billy Baldwin, a high school and college wrestler, who reeled off a series of jokes about Gardner, as well as all wrestling heavyweights.
Baldwin told about how he was watching on NBC when Gardner was about to wrestle three-time Olympic champion Alexander Kareline of Russia in gold medal finals at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Baldwin talked about Kareline, known as 'The Experiment,' who grew up in Siberia and had legendary strength. "I was thinking 'we don't have a chance,'" said Baldwin. "They had a 'who's who' and we had a 'what's that?'"
Baldwin ribbed Gardner about winning his Olympic gold on the clinch, when Karelin released his lock and Gardner received the winning point. "How many criteria do you have to get through before you get to 'breaking the clasp?'" asked Baldwin. He reeled off a series of jokes about the length of heavyweight wrestling matches, "which is about 17 hours of wrestling with the score tied 0-0."
Baldwin said that breaking the clasp is criteria number 117, "right behind who has 15 or more forfeits last season." Baldwin finished off the series of barbs with this zinger. "I feel like I deserve the medal more than you. Breaking the clasp? Come on!!!!"
The next panelist was 2002 World Champion Dremiel Byers, who competed against Gardner for many years and became his top rival and one of his best friends.
Byers told a few jokes, then Byers' cell phone rang to take a phone call from Rulon's mother Virginia. Byers answered a few question from Mrs.Gardner, who raised a large family in which Rulon was the baby child. Byers told Ru's mom that he had "placed the parental blocks on his computer. There will be no more internet dating. He's the marrying kind," joked Byers. He also told Mother Gardner that "yes, he ate everything on his plate."
Byers told a funny story about when he and Gardner went into a sauna after a workout in Greece, prior to the Olympic wrestling event at the 2004 Athens Olympics. They had just finished going to the cafeteria after a training session. After a long walk to get to the sauna, and a short time working out there, Gardner excused himself. When Gardner returned, "he was eating a Haagen Daas ice cream bar. I asked him where did you get that, and Rulon said he had put it in his workout bag."
Byers told a story about how they were roommates at the Olympics, and the air conditioning was very cold. Gardner had fallen asleep, and Byers decided to play around a bit, uncovering his feet to get them cold. Gardner scrunched up under the covers more each time Byers pulled up the blanket, "until his huge body was all the way up on the pillow." Byers sweared that Gardner also must have been dreaming about his long night lost in the frozen Wyoming mountains. "He was mumbling, 'I hope they find me soon,'" joked Byers.
Last up on the microphone was Gardner's agent Danielle Marquis, who told the audience that she was his fifth agent since he became famous. Marquis joked about how when he met Rulon's mother she noted that "he hasn't fired you yet?" She told about the challenges of managing Gardner's business activities. She took a number of shots at how he makes personal decisions, spends his money and invests his earnings, noting that anybody in the audience "who sells snake oil needs to meet him; it's the only place he invests his money."
Gardner was given an opportunity to have a rebuttal of his panelists, and told a few jokes about each. However, he also found a way to pick on himself. "There is nothing to do growing up in Wyoming, except to become the world's best lovers," cracked Gardner. He also told about how some of his college instructors did not think he could get his teaching degree. "I will prove I can become a teacher," said Gardner, "and spent 6 ˝ years getting there…"
But mostly, Gardner told stories about how each of those from the roast had helped him to become a better wrestler and believe in himself, allowing him to reach his goals. He especially thanked Fraser and Byers for all they did for him on the road to his medals and praised Gable for giving him some key advice prior to his Olympic finals match against Kareline.
He told stories about how Fraser helped him to improve and to get mentally tougher, calling Fraser "a little dog who never quits." He noted that Fraser and Olympic coach Dan Chandler "saw something I didn't know I had." He also thanked Gable for telling him before the Kareline bout that "you give Karelin too much respect."
Gardner lavished tremendous praise on Byers. When Gardner defeated Byers in the Olympic Trials in 2004, Byers immediately volunteered to be Gardner's training partner for the Olympics. "He is a true person," said Gardner. "We worked together for what we believed in. I couldn't have done it without him. He is the best wrestler I have ever faced, and the best athlete in the world. Nobody can beat him if he believes in himself."
Looking back at his career from being in retirement, Gardner said that "there is nothing like the sport of wrestling and what it does for your life."
The evening started with a special presentation to nationally respected Blair Academy wrestling coach Jeff Buxton, who received a USA Wrestling Lifetime Achievement Award. Buxton was honored for his amazing achievements leading the nation's premier high school program, as well as his coaching of young athletes through USA Wrestling on the state and national level. Buxton received his trophy from Alan Meltzer, the father of one of his Blair Academy wrestlers who is now competing at Harvard Univ.
"I gave Jeff one of my most prized things in life, my son. The only thing that matters to a parent is his children. Jeff would be a mentor as a wrestling coach and as a human being. We made the right decision. Jeff's record is incredible. But the real record is how the parents feel about him," said Meltzer.
"The Blair wrestlers push me to be a better coach. Keeping these talented kids motivated has not been difficult," said Buxton. "USA Wrestling has helped the sport to grow. I volunteer with them as much as I can. We see wrestling as a true sport that can make a difference in kids' lives."
The evening started with a videotape greeting from Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, the honorary chairman of the Night of Champions and a former wrestler and coach. He congratulated Buxton for his coaching achievements and leadership.
"I wish you all a festive time," said Hastert. "The Olympic movement is a bright light that brings people together through sports."
Lee Roy Smith, the Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, also greeted the guests, and explained about the Legends Fund program, where people can support the efforts of the Hall of Fame and USA Wrestling.
"As the world's oldest sport, we provide a unique and positive inspiration to the world," said Smith.
Elizabeth Hurley of the U.S. Olympic Committee welcomed everybody on behalf of USOC CEO Jim Scherr. Hurley said, "We are here to make sure all of our athletes have the support, financial and moral, to pursue their dreams and win medals for the United States."
Steven John Jastrabek, one of the chairs of the evening, also celebrated the opportunity to get together and make a difference.
"I recognized the potential that New Jersey had for bringing fundraising and wrestling together," said Jastrabek.
There was a public auction at the end of the evening for three major gifts that received tremendous support from those in participation. Auctioned off were an official torch from the 1984 Olympic Games, a "Day in the Life" photo documentary from renowned photographer Stephen Taylor and a seven-night vacation in Steamboat Springs, Colo. A silent auction with dozens of prizes was also included in the activities.
The day began with the Drive of Champions, with a round of championship golf on the historic Hamilton Farm course during the afternoon. There were 22 teams of golfers who enjoyed a tremendous day of competition and friendship. Awards were presented to the top three teams in the final standings of the tournament.
The day and evening was a major success, with considerable funds raised for wrestling and the Olympic movement. People left at the end of the night with smiles on their faces, remembering many of the jokes and stories from the Rulon Gardner roast, as well as the outstanding food and the opportunity to meet others with a passion for wrestling.