Young wrestlers get the chance of a lifetime, attend camp with Olympians

HURRICANE — It’s not often that two Olympic gold medal-winning athletes show up in Washington County.

Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson (right) demonstrates technique at a camp for wrestlers, Hurricane, Utah, June 22, 2021 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

Yet that was exactly the case on Monday when Olympic wrestlers Rulon Gardner and Kevin Jackson conducted a wrestling camp for youth at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Hurricane.

Gardner, who in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, pulled off what some call the greatest upset in sports history when he defeated Russian Aleksandr Karelin to win gold in Greco-Roman wrestling, recently moved to the area with his wife.

“Just have a lot of friends down here, and they’re like, ‘Hey, you can make a big impact on Southern Utah wrestling,’ and (so I) just decided to come down and help these kids,” Gardner told St. George News, while about 50 wrestlers worked out around him.

Gardner is working to create a Southern Utah wrestling club with new facilities at the fairgrounds.

Crimson Cliffs High School senior Eldon Milton (left) prepares for a takedown at a wrestling camp, Hurricane, Utah, June 22, 2021 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

The camp held Monday was a weeklong event for wrestlers from several different states and of all abilities and age groups. Gardner said kids from elementary school through high school were on the mats, and they even had a 6-year-old learning how to wrestle for the first time.

“We’re just trying to spread wrestling across the country and across the world,” Gardner said. “You know, the rest of the world is pretty good at wrestling. Americans seem like we’re always trying to play catchup.” 

For Gardner, coaching is all about the basics.

“You develop that fundamental technique and it just becomes second nature,” Gardner said, “all the way to Olympic-caliber moves. These kids want to be flashy from day one, but you have to build the core movement, the core development.”

Jackson’s prolific career includes a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain; two World Championships; three World Cup gold medals; and four All-American honors in college.  

“Me and Rulon have a lifelong relationship, and so being good friends with him, I’ve done these camps in Utah before,” Jackson said. “He told me he was doing something new here, and I was glad to be involved.”

Jackson said he came away from the workout session with a very positive impression of the talent level displayed by the wrestlers in the room.

“They work real hard, and they’re real disciplined,” Jackson said, noting that it’s not easy to go through a three-hour wrestling workout. “They have a lot of potential. Having a guy like Rulon in the area is going to make wrestling in the area better and make this part of the state a lot better.”

Copper Hills High School junior Tyrone Ngouamo (top) maneuvers for position at a wrestling camp, Hurricane, Utah, June 22, 2021 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

Gardner and Jackson put the wrestlers through workouts teaching basic position on the mat, takedowns and technique.

For Crimson Cliffs High School senior Eldon Milton, attending the wrestling camp means getting to learn from the very best.

“It’s wonderful being out here with these Olympians,” Milton said. “I go to Rulon’s practice every week and he really just works on me, helps me get better.”

Milton finished third in the state last year and hopes to finish as a state champion in his senior season. He said practicing with Gardner’s club team helps him because he doesn’t usually get to face college-level competition during the high school season.

“And they’re better than me, so it helps me perfect my form, my technique and my conditioning,” Milton said. 

Gardner’s presence and camps are going to help improve the overall quality of wrestling for everybody in the area, Milton added

“It’s really going to help put Southern Utah wrestling on the map,” he said.

Gardner believes one of the special aspects of wrestling as a sport in general is how inclusive it is.

Olympic gold medal wrestler Rulon Gardner talks to fans at a wrestling camp, Hurricane, Utah, June 22, 2021 | Photo by E. George Goold, St. George News

“Wrestling will take everybody,” Gardner said, noting the diversity of ages and abilities of the wrestlers at the camp. Wrestling is experiencing tremendous growth as a girls sport as well.

For each of the wrestlers at the camp, the main goal is to improve as a wrestler and as a person.

For Tyrone Ngouamo, the goal to improve every day applies to all aspects of his life. The wrestler will be a junior at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan, Utah.

Wrestling, one of the most physically grueling of all sports, represents a more daunting challenge for Ngouamo than for the other young wrestlers who were at the camp.

Ngouamo, who came to Utah from Cameroon at the age of 7, is a double amputee and wrestles with prosthetic limbs attached below his knees.

He said he’s on the wrestling team at Copper Hills and he came to Gardner’s camp to get better. One desire fuels him through the physically and mentally grueling sport of wrestling.

“Just the will to improve,” Ngouamo said.  

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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