Elevating the Standard to Another Degree
Feb. 27, 2009
Born and raised in Jamaica, Rohan Gardner moved to Miami, Fla., when he was eight years old. It wasn’t long before he became acclimated to the new culture, and by his sophomore year of high school, he began to partake in one of America’s most popular pastimes – sneaking out of the house.
But if anyone knew the reason behind this seemingly egregious offense, they would applaud Gardner for his determination. Over the next eight years, Gardner realized his own American dream, accomplishing feats that would even incline a mother and father to stand up in approval of their son, who one day, refused to stay home.
After arriving in the Sunshine State, Gardner was introduced to organized sports for the first time in the fourth grade. Although his destiny lay in wrestling, it was years before Gardner took to the mat. Instead, he displayed his zest for competition on the gridiron, pouring his heart into his first love – football. A talented wide receiver, Gardner had high hopes of one day playing for the Oakland Raiders, but his dreams were stopped short when he broke his pelvis in the ninth grade. When the doctors told Gardner he could no longer play football, he went in search of another competitive outlet.
“I couldn’t play football anymore, so I snuck out of the house and joined the wrestling team without my parents knowing,” Gardner said. “My parents did not want to see me get hurt again. I probably still could have played football, but I respected my parents’ wish to give up contact sports. Wrestling was the next best thing.”
As a sophomore, Gardner was pinned in his first match at Palmetto High School. But like any true competitor, he knew there was only one thing to do after a fall – get back up and try again. Try he did, and success is what he found.
After posting an unblemished 33-0 slate during his senior campaign, the Florida high school state champion sought to continue wrestling at the collegiate level. With acceptance letters from Ohio University, West Point and Navy, Gardner decided to listen to his teachers who suggested that he apply to Northwestern. With no prior knowledge of the NU program or the Big Ten Conference, Gardner took a chance and enrolled at Northwestern University in 1991. Although he had left the sun behind in Florida, Gardner’s wrestling career was just beginning to shine.
Beginning his Wildcat career as a walk-on, Gardner walked out as a two-time all American and Big Ten Champion, capping his stellar career with a 108-29 overall record, including a 59-11 slate in his final two seasons. Today, Gardner’s 108 wins rank eighth on Northwestern’s all-time victory list.
However, in spite of all his athletic success, Gardner’s most significant achievement was earning a scholarship.
“I went to Northwestern because of its academic reputation,” Gardner said. “Wrestling was always secondary. If I didn’t make the team it would not have fazed me. I went to Northwestern to graduate and to earn a degree. That was my priority.”
During his sophomore season, Gardner once again fell subject to a medical hardship, this time injuring his knee. With his second campaign abbreviated to just six matches, he found himself with another year of eligibility and time on his hands. A consummate competitor, Gardner was indifferent to the sidelines; but he had learned a long time ago that when one door closes, another often opens. With this sentiment in mind, he accepted his injury as an opportunity to concentrate solely on his primary goal – his degree.
“Injuries always happen in competition, but I never use it as an excuse, win or lose,” Gardner said. “I saw my injury as a positive, pointing me in the right direction to help me graduate early.”
During his time away from the mat, Gardner enrolled in extra classes, opening up his senior year to take extra courses in preparation for graduate school. By the end of his fifth year, Gardner earned a master’s degree in civil engineering, all on Northwestern’s tab. But the accomplished scholar still had one last goal to check off his list: winning a championship and proving to his beloved University that its investment was well spent.
Gardner entered his final Big Ten match expecting nothing less than first place. After years of living up to others’ expectations, the 6-2 Wildcat standout was prepared to reach new heights that only he could set for himself. In March of 1996, Gardner captured the Big Ten crown at 177 pounds, edging Michigan State’s Erich Harvey in a narrow 9-8 victory. For his efforts, Gardner was named National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Academic first team, only one of 10 wrestlers to earn the honor.
Gardner went on to finish third at the 1996 NCAA Championships, adding to his fifth-place finish from the year before. While no competitor likes to lose, there were no feelings of remorse for Gardner, who describes the highlight of his career as the gateway it provided to his education.
“I pushed myself to be a national champion, and although that did not happen, with my degree, I have no regrets of my accomplishments at Northwestern,” Gardner said.
“Because of my work ethic, I think I would have accomplished the same things in wrestling had I gone to another school,” he adds. “But if I had to do it all over again, I would definitely choose Northwestern because of its educational diversity and because it pushes the student-athlete.”
Now settled in Miami, Fla., Gardner is very reticent about his wrestling past, maintaining a modest profile of his long list of accolades, which continues to grow. Nearly a decade after winning the Big Ten title, Gardner was inducted into the 23rd class of the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in February of 2006. Of all his accomplishments, Gardner describes the induction as the pinnacle of his achievements.
“It was truly an honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame because as a former walk-on, I never expected to be recognized along with that caliber of athletes,” Gardner said.
Anyone who has ever seen Gardner wrestle knows that he is right where he belongs. A self-made man, Gardner is the quintessence of what every student-athlete should be – one who mastered the art of translating work ethic and determination from the classroom to the competitive field and eventually to life.
“The challenges I face in my day-to-day life are nothing compared to what I endured during my last two years at Northwestern,” said Gardner. “The experiences I had while a student and wrestler at Northwestern are unparalleled in the impact they had on my development into the person I am today.”