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Speaking of Sports: An Olympic Challenge

by Brent Harris, Director of Sports Information
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Gold medalists teach Wabash wrestlers that "to be the best, you have to be explosive!"

One moment Cody Johnson was standing in the middle of the Knowling Fieldhouse. The next he was flat on his back, staring at the ceiling.

Johnson, now a junior on the Wabash College wrestling team, had just learned what many other wrestlers had already discovered: always be ready when you are facing an Olympic champion.

For two days Johnson and senior Rob Arnett were, at best, sparring partners—and, at worst, punching bags—for 2000 Olympic gold medalists Rulon Gardner and Brandon Slay at the annual Brian Anderson Little Giant Summer Wrestling Camp.

Johnson has worked each summer with Anderson during the camp, responsible not only for practice and training sessions but also for picking up guest clinicians at the airport. But he wasn’t ready for what he saw getting into his 1991 Chevy Blazer when Rulon Gardner stepped off the sidewalk at Indianapolis International Airport.

"Rulon is without a doubt the strongest man I have ever come in contact with," Johnson says. "His hands resemble large stones with smaller stones for fingers. He may look a little portly now, but I can assure you, if he so desired, he could snap a small pickup truck in half.

"Brandon Slay stuck out in my mind for a different reason. He graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and is a very intelligent guy. He was engaged in a religion/philosophy discussion with Arnett that would not have been understood by a?large portion of the United States population—myself included.

"Hanging out with these two gentlemen was a pleasure. But wrestling a couple of Olympic gold medalists was anything but a pleasure for my ribcage and Arnett’s cranium."

Johnson brought the two wrestlers back to Crawfordsville and it was time to hit the mats. More than 170 campers from 6 to 18 years of age gathered around to watch Slay demonstrate his moves, using Johnson as his opponent.

The first move was a moment Johnson will never forget.

"Slay talked to the crowd of campers and had me stand in front of them with my back facing the crowd," Johnson recalls. "I was completely relaxed, which may have been the only thing that saved every bone in my torso from exploding.

"Slay said, ‘Now, I’m just going to show you the first step in my penetration step.’ He bent his knees and dropped his whole body down into a coiled position, like a cobra before it strikes a helpless rabbit. Then he launched his shoulder into my sternum, using?the ground as a launchpad for his NASA rocket-like legs. 

"Once he hit me, he kept driving upward, propelling my body off of the ground and onto his shoulder. To finish the ‘first step’ of his penetration step, he gorilla-pressed me off of his shoulder, over his back, and sent me flying, roughly seven or eight feet into the air."

Johnson lay stunned on the mat for a few moments. But after gathering his senses and making certain all of his body parts were still capable of movement, he realized what Slay had really taught that afternoon.

"It sounds painful, but it was an eye-opening experience," Johnson says. "In order to be the best, you have to be explosive. Strength, speed, technique, mat-savvy; Slay had it all and then some."

The teaching didn’t stop with wrestling.

"Slay offered advice on things that I should work on for the upcoming season," Johnson says. "He was never too busy to help out a camper or answer a question from a high-school coach.

"Slay taught me more than just how to execute a double-leg. He taught me that if you are committed, if you live the right way, and if you treat people just as you would like to be treated, the cards will someday fall in your favor.

"It was an awesome experience," the junior rhetoric major concludes. "I will be able to tell my kids and my grandkids that I was physically assaulted by one of our nation’s best wrestlers. More importantly, I will be able to share, with everyone, the lessons that I learned about wrestling and life from a remarkable wrestler and an even more remarkable man."

Photos: 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist Rulon Gardner schools Rob Arnett ’09 during summer's Little Giant Wrestling Camp in Wabash's Knowling Fieldhouse.