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Two-time Olympic medalist wants to prove he is no loser
By Bryan Van Kley, WIN Publisher
Wrestling fans who attend the Olympic Trials in Iowa City next weekend — April 21-22 — are going to witness an awesome event which only comes along obviously once every four years. It’s action-packed and filled with drama as the U.S.’s top Senior-level wrestlers battle it out to see who will get the coveted spots on this summer’s Olympic Team competing in London in August.
But there’s one storyline which will be distinctly different and unique….but that goes with the territory when you’re talking about 2000 Olympic champion Rulon Gardner.
The Utah native accomplished what others saw as one of the greatest sports upsets of all-time by beating Russian wrestling legend Alexander Karelin in the gold-medal finals in front of a global audience nearly 12 years ago. The upset shocked fans in attendance and dignitaries, who had thrown a pre-event social in Karelin’s honor for what was sure to be another Olympic gold for the famed Karelin. But the upset wasn’t a surprise to Gardner, U.S. coaches and those in the know.
But as has been well-chronicled since that historic upset, Gardner’s career and life story has been a roller coaster ever since. He went on to prove the Olympic win wasn’t a fluke, winning the Worlds the following year in 2001, then won Olympic bronze at Athens in 2004. After winning that medal, he left his shoes on the mat signaling his retirement from the sport.
Gardner went on to the speaking circuit, giving motivational speeches to both business and sports groups. But as so often happens with athletes after retirement, he struggled with his identity after wrestling. And because of that, his health spiraled out of control and his weight ballooned up to just under 500 pounds, over 200 pounds over his competition weight for Greco-Roman.
It was at his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in the summer of 2010 that Rulon finally realized he had a severe health problem and was willing to get help to get his weight under control. Hall of Fame director Lee Roy Smith called the wildly-popular NBC show Biggest Loser to see if they could get Gardner on the show.
He did get on the show in the fall of 2010, and did extremely well, dropping 200 pounds over a seven-month period. He then shocked the world … again … by voluntarily stepping off the show with only a few weeks remaining. At that point, he was a front-runner for winning the show’s $250,000 season prize.
“I know I would have won the show,” Gardner said this week.
So why did Gardner walk off the show with so much money and fame at stake? One reason was wrestling … and a point to prove to the world other than just losing weight.
“It’s a proclamation that I’m back again,” Gardner said. “How many people can do that after going through something like I did. I have a chance to do something that 99 percent of the world thinks is crazy. I have that one percent of people telling me that I can do it because you have that eye of the tiger, that eye of the champion again.” Gardner, age 40, will get back on the mat again competitively for the first time in eight years and try to make the U.S. Greco team at next week’s Olympic Trials. But he’ll have to defeat former World champ Dremiel Byers and others to do it. Byers, himself a three-time World medalist, is getting up there in age as well at 37. He’ll be an extremely tough opponent for Gardner.
Gardner’s other obstacle will be the weight itself. When Gardner left the Biggest Loser he was down to 289 and was losing ten pounds a week. However, contestants rarely eat protein and Gardner knew he was losing muscle mass as well. He feared he would become this “skinny, small” guy and would be smaller than he wanted to be to be competitive again.
So after walking off the show in March of 2011, Gardner prepared himself to go back to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He did that in September of last fall and reunited with long-time Greco coach and trusted friend Steve Fraser.
Fraser said Gardner’s been working incredibly hard.
“He’s working as hard as anybody in our room and putting in extra time in addition to that,” Fraser said of Gardner’s three-a-day workouts. “I would never bet against Rulon Gardner. But Dremiel Byers has three World medals himself and is a stud.”
So the stage is set for a coming-out party for Gardner next weekend. The wrestling world and U.S. sports community will get to see how Gardner responds in his first competition back.
Gardner admitted some of his own reservations after not competing in such a long time.
“Going out, there is some disbelief,” he said candidly. “I’m going to go out and give it everything I’ve got. I don’t know if I have what it takes. This is the same philosophy that I’ve had the last 15 years. Whether you succeed or fail, you’re going to give it everything you’ve got.”
Gardner said he’s already been in contact with NBC about broadcasting the Olympics this summer if he doesn’t make the team. But he stressed he firmly believed he can “go out there and do what I need to” to make the Olympic Team.
Gardner, who’s got a great sense of humor and infectious smile, joked that despite all the weight issues and everything that’s happened in his life that he is truly happy again and feels like he’s got his life back. He even “bragged” that despite a recent hamstring injury, he recently burned 11,000 calories in one day.
The former Nebraska collegian said he was “embarrassed” about all the weight he had gained and then needed to step on the scale every week on national television. This made it a public issue. But Gardner is so appreciative of the people in the wrestling community who have always been there for him, like Fraser and Art Martori from the Sunkist Kids.
In terms of where Gardner’s career goes from here, that remains to be seen. He’s part owner of a Gold’s Gym in Logan, Utah, and will continue to travel around making speeches. He also mentioned having an interest in getting into professional wrestling. He wants to give back to the sport of amateur wrestling moving forward as well.
“If I don’t make the Olympic Team, I’ve got my life back. I want to be bigger part of (wrestling) and help develop the sport,” he said.
Win or lose next weekend, Gardner said he’s ready to compete again. And show the world he’s already conquered the latest battle in his life: getting his health back. And that won’t change by happens at the Olympic Trials.
(For Olympic Trials ticket information, go to IowaCitytoLondon.com)