Listen to Rulon Gardner speak for a few minutes and his outlook on life will become instantly clear: “You’ve only got one life,” and, “Life is about obstacles, but it’s also about opportunities.”
He would know. Gardner is now 39, but has already overcome more obstacles than most people do in a lifetime.
Gardner was born into adversity. Growing up in Afton, Wyo., he and his eight older brothers and sisters spent the majority of their time working on their farm, usually at freezing temperatures. Aside from farm work, the only other things they had time for was a few hours of sleep each night, and school.
But Gardner never liked school much, since he was labeled ‘slow.’ In kindergarten, he was diagnosed with a learning disability and targeted for special education. His classmates picked on him for that, as well as for weighing over 120lbs. by fourth grade.
In high school, Gardner finally found his niche: sport. He excelled at football, track and field, and wrestling. He decided to attend Ricks College for two years and then University of Nebraska–Lincoln, both because of wrestling. Wrestling was something Gardner enjoyed and was good at, but he never had high aspirations for himself.
At the Los Angles 1984 Olympic Games, Steve Fraser became the first American in history to win Greco-Roman gold; the following night, American Jeff Blatnick won gold in a different weight class. But no American had joined their exclusive gold-medal club since then.
13 years after his gold-medal victory, Fraser became the USA Wrestling national team coach and started working with Gardner.
“My first impression was he was a big, strong hardworking heavyweight that had a lot of potential,” Fraser said.
With Fraser’s help, Gardner qualified for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
“Some of the people in wrestling told me, ‘Oh, you’re not even supposed to be there, you’re just lucky you’re going,’” Gardner said. “So I really didn’t have any expectations for winning a medal. I was just happy to be there.”
No one had expectations for the slow Wyoming farm boy. Except for Fraser.
“My expectations were that he could beat Aleksandr Karelin and win the gold medal,” Fraser said. “I probably was one of the few people that thought he could do that, but I saw some things in Karelin and I saw some things in Rulon that matched up pretty well for Rulon.”
Karelin won Olympic gold at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, as well as nine World Championship golds from 1989 – 1999, for the Soviet Union and Russia. He was undefeated for the 13 years leading into the Sydney Games. Gardner, on the other hand, did not have any international success…but Fraser still believed he could upset Karelin.
“The first match I think I won 8-2, second match was 6-0,” Gardner said. “I didn’t have real strong competitors to start off with, but it was kind of a joke to go out there and put yourself in that situation.
For me, growing up in Wyoming, that was a big step to jump out there in the limelight like that. They always say, ‘Act like you been there before,’ and that’s exactly what I did. I’m like, ‘well I may not win every match but I’m gonna go out and act like I deserve to be there.”
Gardner won his third match, 2-1, and moved on to beat Israel’s Yuri Evseitchik in the semifinals. Evseitchik was born and raised in the Soviet Union and the victory served as a good confidence booster for Gardner, who would face Karelin in the gold-medal match.
“Before the match, we strategized,” Fraser said. “Karelin’s favorite move is the reverse lift. So we put a game plan together that challenged Karelin to actually reverse lift Rulon.
“As Rulon was defending that, Karelin almost got him up two or three times, but Rulon defended that. We kept the score close and it was just an unbelievable match the way it panned out. He got Karelin tired, just like we were hoping he would. In all the years of watching, I’ve never seen Karelin give up and he gave up with about seven seconds to go and you could see he was done.
In just nine minutes, Gardner had the match of his life and managed to overthrow the “Russian Bear,” something no other wrestler had done in 13 years. He became the third American to ever earn Greco-Roman gold.
Gardner’s success continued the next season when he took home the 2001 World Championships gold. But it was not long before his next bout with adversity would put his wrestling career on hold.
In Feb. 2002, Gardner got separated from friends while snowmobiling and was unable to find his way back to familiar territory. He eventually found himself stuck in a large gully. Unable to get his snowmobile out, Gardner spent 17 hours in subzero temperatures before being rescued. All of his toes suffered from severe frostbite and his right middle toe was amputated.
“Coming back from that tragedy was pretty much, ‘You got a chance to live – are you gonna live and never achieve your goals, or are you gonna get back on the horse and learn how to fight again?’ And I’d never backed down from anything and for me it was no big deal to get back up and fight like I had nowhere else to go,” Gardner said.
Being the fighter that he is, Gardner never gave up and fought his way back to good health and peak wrestling shape. Two years after the snowmobile accident, he returned to wrestle at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, where he took bronze. It was no Sydney, but Gardner said the Athens bronze medal was just as satisfying to him.
“A lot of people are pretty critical – they’re like, ‘Uh-oh you failed. You didn’t achieve your goals, you didn’t achieve what you went after,’” Gardner said. “I think those are people that need to check themselves because it’s not always about being the best and the baddest. It’s about going out there and competing and believing in yourself.”
At the end of his bronze-medal match, Gardner placed his shoes in the center of the mat to symbolize his retirement from the sport. He had accomplished everything he wanted to in wrestling and was ready to find success in other venues and, “have a life besides wrestling.”
One of those other venues is Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting. Gardner won his first bout at Pride Shockwave 2004, against judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida.
MMA has remained a part of Gardner’s life. Earlier this year, he opened the Rulon Gardner Elite Training Center in Logan, Utah, which he has been dreaming of and developing since 2003. The fitness center offers lessons and training in MMA, yoga, kickboxing, step, Zumba, etc.
“What drove me that direction was to be able to give back,” Gardner said. “This way I could open up a health club, help people reach their fitness goals, help myself reach my goals, make a difference in wrestlers’ lives and be a teacher.”
Gardner does whatever he can these days to stay involved in wrestling and help develop future Olympians.
“I hired him to do a few of my camps that I do in the summer for young kids,” Fraser said. “The one great thing about Rulon is the kid’s LOVE him. It always amazes me how the kids flock to him and how he connects so well with the other kids.
“He’s done so much for our sport, I can’t be more thankful to him for what he’s done for Greco-Roman wrestling in our country.”
Ten years after he became the face of Greco-Roman wrestling for the U.S., Gardner is still in awe of everything that has happened to the slow farm boy from Wyoming.
“I still wake up every day and go, ‘How in the heck have I been so darn lucky to live in this great world, in this great country, and have all these great things in my life?’”