Starting in 2020, youngsters looking to Gardner and Karelin for inspiration won't have a chance to excel on the sport's biggest stage.
Gardner and nearly everyone else associated with the sport in the United States were jolted Tuesday when International Olympic Committee leaders dropped wrestling from the Summer Games.
"It's unbelievable," Islip High School coach Joe Patrovich said. "It is the Olympic sport. It symbolizes the Olympics, there's nothing else that symbolizes the Olympics like wrestling. It's crazy."
Said Gardner: "It's the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on, and that was basically amateur sports."
The only sports in which the Americans have won more medals than wrestling is swimming and track and field -- and those two have far more medal opportunities.
Americans have won a record 113 freestyle Olympic medals, by far the most of any nation. Though the United States slipped in recent Olympic cycles, it bounced back with a pair of London Games gold medalists in Jordan Burroughs, possibly the best wrestler in the world, and Jake Varner.
"When I heard it on the news this morning, I was very disappointed," Chaminade coach George Dlugolonski said. "Some of our folk heroes have come from the Olympics . . . even this year. These are where our wrestlers go and make a name for themselves. I think a whole generation is going to miss that."
Wrestling will join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in 2020. The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. They will be vying for a single opening in 2020.
With Gene Morris