Rulon Gardner celebrates after competing.
The original title for the new documentary “RULON” was “Rulon Gardner Won’t Die.”
“It could also be called “Rulon Gardner Wants to Live,” said the wrestler who pulled off one of the most shocking upsets in Olympic history 20 years ago. “It’s about the fight to stay alive.”
The 88-minute documentary, which is coming soon on OlympicChannel.com and the Olympic Channel app, only scratches the surface of Gardner’s accidents and near-death experiences.
Growing up the youngest of nine children on a Wyoming dairy farm, Gardner was impaled by an arrow, stuck in a baler and fell from tractors. His sister ran over his legs with a truck. None of these mishaps are mentioned in the documentary.
“I don’t want to talk about those,” Gardner said. “Then people say “How many (lives) do you have left?”
He came back from a snowmobile accident in 2002 that left him so frostbitten he lost a toe, made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team after a motorcycle accident in which he flipped over a car and survived a small plane crash into a bay in 2007 that forced him to swim to shore.
In 2010, Gardner appeared on the television program “The Biggest Loser,” weighing in at 474 pounds. He showed his grit and determination in dropping down to 301, then just missed making weight for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He had to sell some of his Olympic memorabilia when a bad business deal forced him to declare bankruptcy.
After Gardner agreed to appear in the documentary, which is part of the Olympic Channel’s Five Rings Films series, the 48-year-old had to face some hard truths about himself “when people dissect your life and they can sit and tell you stuff about you,” he said.
“It’s humbling. It makes you realize that I have been really blessed to still be alive. I have been pretty dang lucky in this whole process. All the things I’ve been through, I’ve had to fight. I’ve seen a lot of other people in the sporting world, something bad happens to them and they simply call it in and quit. That’s the last thing I’d ever do is give up on myself and quit when there’s so much left to live.”
Gardner is still fighting to stay alive after gaining back the weight he lost. The documentary, he said, “has really gotten me to look at myself.” Both of his jobs - wrestling coach at Herriman High School in Salt Lake City and insurance salesman – shine a spotlight on his health risks.
“I want to get back to my Olympic size and be able to go in and show technique instead of scaring the kids because I’m so big I’m going to hurt them and land on them,” Gardner said. “So I’m taking a positive light, to say it’s time to get your health and get your life back. It’s time to be accountable for my decisions.”
Since the documentary was filmed, Gardner has lost more than 30 pounds, but said he still has 120 to go.
However, when he looks in the mirror, Gardner said, “I see the old Rulon Gardner, the Olympic wrestler.” That’s the man who dethroned Aleksandr Karelin, the Russian who had not lost in 13 years, to win the gold medal in the Greco-Roman wrestling super heavyweight (286 pounds) division at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000.
Opponents were scared of what the three-time Olympic champion would do to them, Gardner said in the documentary. “He would pick you up and dump you on your head.”
Three years earlier at the world championships, Gardner experienced that signature move, the “Karelin lift.” The Russian dropped him on his head, breaking two vertebrae in his neck.
A month before the Olympic Games Sydney 2000, Gardner competed in a tournament in Russia. Because Karelin did not wrestle, Gardner faced the No. 2 Russian.
“I attacked him, he hip tossed me and pinned me in 13 seconds,” Gardner said. “That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because it humbled me and it brought me back to earth. It made me realize, ‘Yeah, you’re an Olympian and you’ve done nothing, so you need to get your head back on straight. If you get it on straight, you’ll give yourself a chance to compete. If you don’t, you’re going to not even compete for anything at the Olympics.’
“I learned so much, probably more from my losses than I ever did my victories.”
Gardner barely got through his semifinal in Sydney to reach the match with Karelin, who was so confident he didn’t even warm up.
On the mat, Gardner says in the film, “It felt like I was trying to move a horse.”
Despite the odds, Karelin made a mistake and Gardner won. “I was pretty astonished,” he said.
So was the world, comparing it to the Miracle on Ice, when the unheralded U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in 1980 in Lake Placid.
This time, though, it was an individual instead of a team.
“I remember watching them when I was 9 years old, back in Wyoming, and it was truly profound,” Gardner said. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh, your match is just like them,’ and I think for individual sports, it could be classified that way. I’d had no success at the international level and I wasn’t a champion.”
After Sydney, however, Gardner was not only a champion, he was in demand as a personality. He made the talk show rounds, appeared as himself on the television show “Nash Bridges,” and in a movie.
Then while snowmobiling on Valentine’s Day 2002, he became separated from his friends and spent a harrowing night in subzero temperatures. His legs were frozen from shin to toes and the middle toe on his right foot died and had to be amputated. Gardner was so famous that a newsmagazine got permission to film him in the hospital and the operating room, amazing footage that is included in the documentary.
Gardner proved to be just as good with nine toes, but bad luck struck again. In 2004, a car pulled out in front of him while he was riding his motorcycle, giving him severe road rash. Three days later, he dislocated his hand while playing basketball, requiring three pins.
“One week before the Olympic team trials, they pulled those pins out and the doctor’s like, ‘You’ll never make the Olympic team,’” Gardner said.
But he did, beating Dremiel Byers, the world champion, to reach the Athens Olympics.
Gardner was one move away from making the Olympic final, losing in the semis. He still secured the bronze medal, leaving his shoes on the mat to announce his retirement.
“Beating Karelin was magical,” he said, “but when I got the bronze medal, my coaches are like, ‘Rulon, that match was so much more impressive than when you won the Olympics, because everybody knew you, so there wasn’t a chance you were going to come from nowhere. So we think it was probably a better victory.’”
Gardner hopes viewers of the documentary will be inspired by his journey.
“I think people will just be astonished with all the different things I’ve been through and all the different challenges, the things I overcame and a lot of the tragedies, too,” he said.
“In 2002 when I got frostbite, that was a day that changed my life and my perspective forever in a good way and a bad way. Because that day I kind of thought I was invincible, ‘Oh nothing can hurt me,’ and guess what happened? I lived off of the memory for too long and now, it’s like, ‘Rulon, you can’t say as Olympic champ I don’t have to be healthy, I don’t have to be smart about choices.’ Well, guess what? You do. Right now, I’m being healthy and living every day to live another one.”
And he’s still got all 10 toes, even if one is packed in preservative in his refrigerator. “It’s a good reminder,” he said, “not to be stupid.”