As a sophomore last season, Tanner Gardner added his name to a list of the 12 best wrestlers in Stanford history. This year, he's looking to do even better.
Gardner, a team co-captain, has focused on leading by example in 2006-07, challenging his teammates to emulate his work ethic and drive.
"I think I bring a really positive attitude into the room and try to show that I enjoy being there," says Gardner. "I'd like to think that rubs off on other people. I lead through my work ethic and try to work harder than anybody expects or than anybody else can. It motivated me my freshman year to see someone like Matt Gentry working hard. I would look at him and say `I want to be like him, push myself and be the best.' I hope that now I have that same effect on other people."
And Gardner definitely has the credentials to set an example. The 125-pounder has 87 career wins in less than three collegiate seasons. He has won four collegiate tournament titles. He is a two-time placewinner at the Pac-10 Championships. He has 16 career pins and has more than doubled his career pin total this season alone. He's been nationally -ranked two of the three seasons he has competed. And, most importantly, he's been to the NCAA Championships, twice.
"This year, I'm going to the NCAAs with more experience and more experience wrestling in big matches," says Gardner. "The match to make All-American is one of the biggest matches anyone can wrestle. Having that experience is going to help my composure and match strategy. Whether that's in the quarterfinals or the semifinals or the finals, I think experience is going to be a huge key this year."
The difference from past years, however, is that at the 2007 NCAA Championships, Gardner will be wearing a target. As a freshman, Gardner slipped into the elite field with a fifth place finish in the Pac-10. As a sophomore last year, he earned a No. 12 seed, and, after losing his second match, made an impressive run back through the consolation bracket to finish 8th and become the 13th Stanford All-American. This year, Gardner has consistently been ranked among the nation's top-five wrestlers. Currently, he is top-ranked in the Pac-10 and No. 3 nationally.
Gardner, however, isn't scared to go into the postseason with high expectations.
"It's always easier to wrestle being the underdog," he admits. "In one sense, it's difficult to have a target on your back because everybody's trying to wrestle their best match against you and wants to upset the high-ranked guy. At the same time, that motivates me to practice that much harder because I expect everyone to have their best match against me."
In addition to setting his sights on becoming Stanford's second two-time All-American, Gardner is aiming to follow in the footsteps of former teammate Matt Gentry and become the second Cardinal wrestler to win a National Championship. Gardner, however, will have to pull some upsets of his own to achieve the goals he has set for himself. So far this season, he's had a chance to see his best competition, which, he believes, has prepared him to be successful. He has already recorded six matches against ranked wrestlers, and met No. 1 Sam Hazewinkel of Oklahoma in an exhibition match at the prestigious All-Star Classic.
"The amount of competition I've faced this year has been fantastic," he says. "I wrestled the No. 1 guy in an exhibition match. I wrestled the No. 2 guy in the finals of a tournament and lost a close match to him. I I beat the previous No. 3 guy. I beat the guy who's ranked No. 4. Getting to see that good competition before nationals is going to be really helpful in the long run."
Gardner has made steady progress toward achieving his goals and, this year, he is armed with the talent, experience and dedication to take another big step.
"Last year, I said I believed I could be a National Champ, but I don't know if I actually did or not," he says. "After making All-American last year and seeing how close I was, I really proved to myself that I can be a National Champion. It's a huge change in attitude from last year to this year."
With solid confidence and a determination to be the best, Gardner is sure to make more history at Stanford.