Rulon Gardner’s terrifying trek: From Olympic hero to near-death and another chance

Someone’s on the other line. Rulon Gardner will call right back.

It has been nearly 20 years since you first met the legend, who outmuscled logic and outlasted an immortal. It was in Sydney where the first line of a 29-year-old’s obituary was written, where Gardner pulled “The Miracle on the Mat” by handing Aleksandr Karelin his first loss in 13 years and winning Olympic gold in super heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling.

Gardner made the rounds with Oprah, Leno and Letterman. He rubbed elbows with Tiger Woods and Garth Brooks. He was featured on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” He asked if you “Got Milk?”

Hold on. The phone’s ringing.

“I’m sorry about that,” Gardner says. “Where were we?”

The morning after.

He lost his privacy. He lost more money than he ever imagined having. He lost marriage after marriage. He lost his gold medal. He lost his self-esteem. He lost a toe. He nearly lost his life again and again and again.

Largely, because he didn’t lose when he was supposed to.

Gardner unexpectedly interrupts himself again. He’ll call back.

“I’m really sorry,” Gardner says. “I got people who keep calling me, ‘I need this. I need that.’ This is what happens when you’re an insurance agent.”

Afton, Wyo., is best known for the world’s largest arch made of elk antlers.

There, Gardner was the youngest of nine Mormon children raised on a 250-acre dairy farm. He would rise before the sun. He moved bales of hay. He chopped grain. He milked cows. He shoveled their s–t. He carried their calves.

A learning disability earned Gardner the nickname “Dumbo.” The 125-pound fourth-grader was also called “Fatso.” As a senior at Star Valley High School, he won a state wrestling title and placed second in the shot put. He attended Ricks Junior College in Rexburg, Idaho, and became the national junior college heavyweight champion. Then, he walked on to Nebraska’s football team, before focusing on wrestling.

When Gardner qualified for the 2000 Olympics, he’d never finished better than fifth in international competition.

“In ’99, I was No. 3 in the country. So, what does that put me in the world? Top 50?” Gardner said. “There was never a lot of fanfare around me. It was like, ‘Ehhh, he’s just an average heavyweight who works hard.’ When I made the team, it was like, ‘There goes any shot of us winning a medal.’

“But those were fighting words. Really? You think so? Let me show you something.”

Karelin was 887-1. He took gold at the three previous Games. He hadn’t lost since 1987. He hadn’t surrendered a point in six years.

“You consider this ancient sport and this monumental man who’s had a perfect career,” analyst and former gold medalist Jeff Blatnick said before the match, “and the only thing you come up with is that he’s what Hercules was to the ancient Greeks.”

Gardner previously faced the Russian at the ’97 World Championships, losing 5-0.

“Even though this guy is probably gonna destroy you, put yourself in there. You never know what’s gonna happen,” Gardner said. “Most people were intimidated. I was gonna go out there with a stiff neck and give my all.”

At 3:23 of the final, the greatest wrestler of all time broke his clinch, resulting in a point for Gardner. The scoreboard never spoke again.

Gardner has watched the match at least 400 times. The ending remains stunning. With seconds still on the clock, Karelin places his hands at his hips, acknowledging inconceivable defeat.

Gardner is mobbed by Team USA. He does a cartwheel. Then a somersault. He runs around with an American flag. He joins his family, including his father, Reed, who raised travel funds by selling homemade sausage stew at the Lincoln County Fair.

“After I won and they raised my hand, I still thought there’s no way in the world I’m gonna get the gold medal. This isn’t real. It’s not possible,” Gardner said. “It was truly magical. It took years before I could comprehend it. People would say, ‘Did you pinch yourself when you woke up the day after?’ I said, ‘No. I don’t ever want to wake up.’ ”

Jack Nicholson saved his life.

Gardner was lost, separated from friends while snowmobiling in Wyoming’s 3.4 million-acre Bridger-Teton National Forest in February 2002. The sun was setting when his snowmobile fell from a 50-foot cliff. Then, he fell into the freezing Salt River. Hours passed. He suffered frostbite and hypothermia in sub-zero temperatures.

He thought about Jack.

“You ever see ‘The Shining?’ That image of him frozen profoundly affected me,” Gardner said. “I thought, ‘What if my mom found me frozen to death, knowing that I quit on myself?’ That was the reason I didn’t give up. Did I think I was gonna die? Probably, but that’s when I said, ‘Rulon, you need to toughen up. If you say you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die.’ ”

The 18-hour ordeal ended after a 29-person rescue team located Gardner with a search plane. His boots were removed with a saw. He was told both feet would be amputated. He lost just one middle toe, though he sustained permanent nerve damage and required four surgeries.

“I can’t feel my feet 18 years later,” Gardner said.

He saved the severed digit in a formaldehyde jar and stored it in his refrigerator, as a reminder of his mortality. It was superfluous.

In third grade, Gardner dropped an arrow he brought to show-and-tell and impaled himself in the stomach. The emergency room doctor said he missed a vital organ by inches. In 2004, Gardner’s motorcycle collided with a car, throwing him over the handlebars. He walked away with no major injuries.

Three years later, he survived a single-engine plane crash into the 44-degree water of Utah’s Lake Powell, where Gardner and two friends swam for more than an hour to reach land, then huddled together for warmth throughout that entire February night.

“I honestly, I felt like I couldn’t die,” Gardner said. “But I don’t want to die, so I changed my behavior. I’m not as crazy as I used to be. I’m not gonna climb the mountain. I question taking those extra risks. I don’t think I’m invincible. I’m in insurance. You manage risk.”

Gardner placed his shoes at the center of the mat. It was time to move on.

He had a teaching degree. He planned on using it if he lost to Karelin, when he was only making $9,000 a year from a wrestling stipend. But Gardner earned a reported $250,000 the year after winning gold and had a steady supply of lucrative motivational speaking gigs.

When Gardner — who also won gold at the 2001 World Championships — retired from wrestling after winning bronze at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, the opportunities seemed endless.

He could have been Kurt Angle, the 1996 gold medalist turned WWE champion.

“I honestly, I felt like I couldn’t die” — Rulon Gardner

“I was offered millions by the WWE to compete for them and I turned it down,” Gardner said. “My mom said, ‘Is this the kid that I raised? Is this who you want to be to the youth of America?’ ”

Gardner collected $200,000 when he won his debut MMA bout on New Year’s Eve 2004, but says he refused a $1 million offer for his next match. He never fought again.

“My mom said, ‘Rulon, did I train my son to be a killer? Is that your goal in life? To hurt people?’ ” he said. “Wrestling is different. You don’t physically assault someone.”

He walked away from millions. Then, he gave away millions.

Gardner — who wrote an autobiography and was an Olympic TV analyst — had already invested roughly $1 million into opening a gym when he co-signed a loan to develop a hot-spring resort near his hometown.

Eventually, he’d learn he was defrauded in the deal and was forced to sell Olympic memorabilia, vehicles and other valuables to pay off the $3.9 million debt in his 2012 bankruptcy case.

“I thought it was a good opportunity, but it was a Ponzi scheme,” Gardner said. “The FBI took 2 ¹/₂ years investigating her and she pled guilty and served two years in federal prison. I got taken. And it cost me everything.”

When authorities seized items from Gardner’s home, his gold medal couldn’t be found. Gardner had already handed it over as collateral for a separate loan. He wouldn’t get it back for four years.

“It was humiliating. You go and do all these truly amazing things and then you fall on your face,” Gardner said. “It was devastating. If I’d have been smart and taken care of myself, life would’ve been good. I went from having a lot of money to starting over again. Almost 10 years after hitting rock bottom it’s taken to start climbing out of the hole.

“It’s been interesting to see how life works. When you do something, there are people you think are your friends. When you’re down, they act like they don’t even know you. That’s the hardest part. As human beings, we’re trusting creatures. We want to believe that people will take care of you.”

Gardner couldn’t even be trusted to take care of himself.

He decided to stop working out. He’d done it long enough. He began inhaling up to 14,000 calories per day.

Gardner retired at 264 pounds. Less than seven years later, he was up to 474.

“I just stopped caring,” Gardner said. “I was looking down the barrel of losing everything.”

In 2011, Gardner landed on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” After 16 weeks, he lost 173 pounds. Inspired, he attempted a comeback at the 2012 Olympics, but was ineligible to compete at the trials after weighing 4.5 pounds over the 264.5 pound limit.

His toughest opponent remains relentless.

“I’m still bigger than I really need to be,” Gardner said. “My boss, we’re competing with each other to lose weight and get healthy again. It’s good. I need competition. That’s what drives me. Once I stopped wrestling, what do I do with that competitive fire? You can’t put it to sleep.”

What coverage do you need?

Gardner offers property and casualty insurance, as well as home, auto and commercial.

“I only have four clients in life [insurance],” said Gardner. “I hate selling death.”

Gardner embarked on his latest career two years ago in suburban Utah. Previously, he spent three years as a medical-device sales rep, working a territory stretching from Montana to Nebraska.

“I’d be in the OR and I’d have 12 sets of different instruments. I knew every piece and how to use it. I’d make sure the doctor had all the correct instruments and told the scrub tech what to do,” Gardner said. “It was competitive. I went in and blew the numbers out of the park. I loved it, but I was gone so much. I’d leave at 4 a.m. and get back at midnight. Your quality of life isn’t good. I decided to come back closer to home.”

It was around then that he split with his fourth wife, and was halfway to becoming licensed as a financial adviser in Connecticut when his company was sold and all new hires were let go.

So, Gardner remained near Salt Lake City, where he became the wrestling coach at Herriman High School.

“I tell our kids, if I did it, anyone can. If you apply yourself, you can be that person,” the second-year coach said. “I love the challenge. I just wish the kids would commit more. They’re really good at making excuses. I’m old school. I challenge them. I put their backs against the wall. That’s the only way you get great results, when you realize that failure is not an option.”

Failure is never an option.

“My business is my new passion. I talk to all the coaches about getting their insurance, and they’re like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Gardner said. “It’s a perfect fit for me. It’s hard-working, fast-paced. My boss is like, ‘I can see why you won a gold medal, that work ethic that you have.’

“Life is good. I have another chance. I could have kept wrestling and just tried to hold onto the glory, but I wanted to live life and not train eight hours a day. I wanted to see what it was like to live a normal 9-to-5.”

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