July 19, 2021, 8:25 AM
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A video buffers. A crackly speaker sputters. Bob Costas’ voice hums through it. And on a gray Thursday morning in American Fork, Utah, inside a center for adults with intellectual disabilities, grainy footage fills a TV screen.
“We turn now to Greco-Roman wrestling,” Costas says, and the rest of the room falls silent.
The video is nearly two decades old, but YouTube has preserved its menace. Costas begins his prelude to the men’s heavyweight final at the Sydney Olympics. “The overwhelming favorite,” he explains, “is Russian Aleksandr Karelin. These are the numbers: Olympic gold medals, three. World titles, nine. Career losses in international competition, zero.” Ominous music lurks in the background. Costas continues: “Perhaps the most feared athlete in Olympic history, Karelin … is at once Hercules in his strength, and in his intimidating powers like Medusa, the Gorgon who will turn men into stone.”
And Karelin’s opponent? The man who, 20 years later, is standing at the front of this colorful room.
“So my name is Rulon Gardner,” he tells two dozen students in a teacherly tone. “And I was the Olympic champ of 2000.”
With the video paused, Gardner meanders through one of the most improbable sporting stories ever, about a kid who grew up milking cows on a Wyoming farm. Who was bullied and teased as he struggled in school. Who went to junior college, and finally reached the Olympics at age 29. Who overcame 2000-1 odds and won.
He’s told the story hundreds, if not thousands of times, and it continues. Two years after the Miracle on the Mat, he got stranded in the wilderness and almost died. He lost a toe to frostbite. He came back and won a second Olympic medal anyway.
His audience, tucked away in this sleepy Utah strip mall, stares up at him in awe. “I actually brought something for you guys to see,” he tells them. “You guys have probably never seen an Olympic gold medal.” He pulls it out and passes it around. “Wow,” one of the students marvels. Next, Gardner unfurls Got Milk posters, which depict 29-year-old him in front of a cow. He signs them, hands them out, and poses for photos. “Thank you, thank you,” a few staffers tell him as he prepares to leave. “This is so nice of you,” one gushes. “It’s amazing what you’ve been through,” another chimes in. “You set such a good example for everybody.” Gardner smiles at the effusive praise.
Then he pushes open the door and steps outside — out of the past, into the present. His feet ache inside bulging, worn-down Skechers. He grunts as he pulls his 400-plus-pound body up into a disheveled Dodge Durango. He grips the wheel, and prepares to confront a life he’s still trying to figure out.
“We all evolve. We change,” he says that afternoon. He’s been wondering: “How does a person become what they become?”
A life unraveled
Not too long ago, Gardner lived in luxury. Several years after outlasting Goliath, his spacious mountainside home boasted a 14-foot television and a steam room. The garage and grounds housed a Hummer, a Mustang, a shiny pickup truck, an Audi, a Harley, a Jeep and a boat. Gardner also owned snowmobiles, a jet ski and guns. He’d parlayed instant, Americana fame into a career as a motivational speaker. He spent hundreds of days every year on the road. He’d earned millions of dollars, and planned to continue earning millions more.
“I’ll never get a real job,” he said in 2007. The lucrative speaking tours, he felt, were “gonna go on forever.”
His life today, however, is not the one he envisioned. I spent two-plus days with Gardner in January 2020, pre-COVID. He was in the process of downsizing to a modest rental home just off the interstate, 50 miles south of Salt Lake City. He spent Wednesday morning at a meeting of local businessmen. They convened at a small church across the street from a barren yard, with snow-sheethed mountains rising up nearby. Gardner arrived in an untucked bluish-gray shirt and gray slacks. He signed in just like the others did. He formally introduced himself just like the others did: “Rulon Gardner, JRI Insurance.”
Real jobs, as both an insurance agent and a high school wrestling coach, consumed much of his life. He chased clients everywhere he went. He gossiped about high school sports in between. His colleagues, of course, knew about his Olympic past — “I’m just excited that you’re still getting some attention,” one said with a smile — but he didn’t get preferential treatment. He sat through presentations just like the rest did. He rearranged tables and chairs after Wednesday’s meeting. He joked with and ranted to a few business acquaintances. “Wassup, brotha” is his go-to greeting. He’s congenial, and somewhat scatterbrained, and … normal.
He’s working real jobs because his life unraveled last decade. His pursuit of riches went awry. He invested poorly, and trusted the wrong people. A faulty gym venture and a fraudulent real estate deal led to a multimillion-dollar bankruptcy case. He lost motorcycles, commemorative trinkets, possessions of all kinds. A few years later, his fourth marriage ended just like the first three, in divorce.
Somewhere amidst the fall, he thudded to a low point. “The point where you look out, and you ask for help, and all the people that said they’d always be there won’t answer the phone,” he says. “And you know. You can see what’s coming. … All these lifelines that you thought you had, you reach for ’em, and it’s just paper. It’s not real.”
He felt empty, abandoned, stuck. So he turned to a principle that has guided him through life. He would create a lifeline. If nobody would lift him, he would lift himself.
From a Wyoming farm to the Sydney Olympics
Back in Afton, Wyoming, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Rulon Gardner’s summer days would begin around 6:30 a.m. He’d awake, dress, and venture out to the family’s 160-acre farm, bordered by a two-lane highway, mountains, and not much else. Summers were pleasant, but the work wasn’t. He’d milk cows, then haul irrigation pipe, back and forth, the hefty cylinders sapping his strength. He’d bail hay. In winters, he’d carry calves across frozen pastures. Chores would begin immediately after school and end around 10 p.m., or later. Temperatures would dip below zero. His gloves would get wet. His hands would get numb.
But he’d keep going, because his parents demanded he keep going — because he knew, from a young age, that his family’s income depended on his chores. He couldn’t skip them for playdates or parties or school dances. His eight siblings, all older, were his primary friends. At school, a learning disability impeded him. Classmates would snicker as he labored through assignments. When it was his turn to read aloud, his nerves would jangle. He was also the biggest kid in class, 120 pounds in fourth grade. He endured the finger-pointing and mean-hearted jokes. But at times, he felt like he was drowning in them.
He soldiered on with a simple philosophy: “You work hard and you get nothing in return. But you give everything.” You grind. And you survive. “Success, for me, was … make it through the day; graduate from high school; pass the tests; that stuff,” Gardner says. Wrestling, he eventually realized, could get him off the farm — to college despite a fifth-grade reading level, and to a career as a phys-ed teacher. Beyond that, he worked, and worked, and worked, with zero expectation of reward.
And then, in 2000, rewards ambushed him.
One week, he was an anonymous 29-year-old living off stipends and his wife’s teacher salary, strolling the streets of Sydney in a billed cap and fanny pack. The next, he was the most improbable gold medalist in Olympic history, and one of the hottest names in the United States. He suddenly found himself on late-night TV shows and at Michael Johnson’s birthday party; in advertisements and magazine photoshoots; at the ESPYs and too many celebrity functions to list. He met President Bush. He was invited to the Playboy Mansion. (He declined.)
Afton eventually welcomed him home with a parade. Gardner rolled into town on a tractor, then through the masses and toward the main stage on a throne. The town’s population, 1,800, multiplied for the occasion. The same kids who’d once teased him, who’d called him “fatso,” who’d rejected him, joined thousands to bask in his glow.
Gardner didn’t stay for long. He set out to monetize his fame. He traveled the world, sometimes via private jet, often for weeks at a time. As his celebrity soared, his self-esteem and bank balance came along for the ride. The rockstar lifestyle enriched him. It energized him.
It also changed him.
It upended his (second) marriage. It tugged him away from his roots. Family members noticed. “He became frustrated and short [with people],” his brother Russell told the Rocky Mountain News. Rulon “saw a whole ’nother world,” as he says now, and lost touch with his old one.
At various points throughout the 2000s, he’d talk about someday moving back to Afton. “My ultimate goal is to return to Wyoming and grow older in Star Valley, enjoy the people who helped shape my life, came to our aid when our family barn burned, and were our neighbors,” he wrote in a 2005 autobiography. In 2007, he told the Deseret News: “Ultimately, my goal is to end up back in Wyoming, to end up with my family.”
But before he could, his dad passed away. His mom, who loved and protected him “so much,” has since died too. “I missed a lot of those experiences with my family,” Rulon says now. “You’re following dreams and all this amazing stuff, but you’re missing out on those moments that are probably the most important of your life.”
It’s “sad,” he says. “Yeah, there’s regrets,” he admits. “You’re just like, ‘Man, I should’ve maybe allocated my time differently. I should’ve done this differently.’ Because you don’t know what you have until it’s truly gone.”
The sometimes awkward optics of Rulon Gardner
On our last evening together, I asked Gardner: Who’s the most important person in your life?
He leaned back, brought his hands to his head, and gazed up at the ceiling. Nine seconds passed. Ten. Eleven. He shut his eyes briefly. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
He broke the silence to name five co-workers — three from his insurance company, and two assistant wrestling coaches. Later, we talked briefly via phone with his sister. But on our first night together, when asked whether he’s still close with siblings, he responded: “Mmm … not as much.” They’ve scattered throughout the Midwest and West, branching off into their own lives, just as Rulon did into his.
Deep relationships, at the time, seemed to elude him. In his life story, doubters appear more often than allies. The more he tells it, overcoming them becomes more of a central theme. There were the elementary school bullies, and the Nebraska teachers, and his wrestling foes. Now there are the skeptical opposing coaches, and the insurance competitors, and the potential clients who rebuff his advances. “Some people say, ‘You need to stop living off negative energy,’ ” Gardner says. “No. Those people that doubted me have driven me to this point.”
In part because of his fame, bubbly interactions still fill his days. After a Thursday wrestling meet, a mom and two young boys approached. “He is a gold medalist, did you know that?” she told her kids enthusiastically. One exclaimed: “Oh my gosh.” As they chatted, the kid bobbed up and down. Gardner jokingly felt his slender bicep. As they parted ways, the mom radiated appreciation. “Thank you,” she said, “you made their night.”
Gardner enjoys the attention. He gets it everywhere, from gyms to restaurants. He occasionally goes out of his way to mention his Olympic exploits to the uninitiated. A stranger at a tire shop responded with a, “Oh, nice, man, right on,” and the conversation veered elsewhere. Two young boys in the high school wrestling room, on the other hand, were entranced. Gardner handed them pictures from 2000. “That’s the guy I beat to win the Olympics,” he told the kids. Their mom chimed in: “So cool.”
These days, however, the adoring fans aren’t merely dopamine suppliers. After Wednesday’s wrestling meet, two middle-aged men approached. “I just wanted to come say hi,” one told Gardner. “When I heard your name, I was like, no way!” They chatted about his injuries and brushes with death. They eventually got around to asking for autographs. And that was Gardner’s cue. He whipped out a flyer. On one side was that picture from 2000, of the ref raising his jubilant arm. The men gawked at it. Rulon told them to flip it over.
On the other side was his contact information.
“So if you guys ever need insurance,” he told them.
Two more adults soon joined the small gathering. Gardner repeated the routine. “How ’bout we do a trade,” he said. “How ’bout I call you about insurance, and I’ll trade you for an autograph.” They agreed, he signed, and as they departed, he promised: “Nice to meet ya, I’ll reach out.”
Clocks were ticking toward 9 p.m. now. On the gym floor, high school cheerleading practice was in full swing. Pom poms were out. Chants were booming. It was our cue to leave.
When we reached the parking lot, we stopped to unwind. “That’s where I get all my business from,” Gardner said. “I have potentially four new clients there.”
He acknowledges the awkward optics. “People look at me sideways when I meet ’em and they’re like, ‘Oh, a celebrity’ – and then you’re trying to sell ’em insurance,” he says. He isn’t always comfortable using the tactic. “But also,” he adds, “I want to make a living.”
The insurance game, he says, “is either kill or be killed,” and that’s how he likes it. The same attitude got him off the farm. The same individualistic drive won him gold medals. He met every challenge in life with narrow, unflinching focus. It was his greatest attribute, the source of countless extraordinary achievements. So many that he began to feel invincible.
What it feels like to die
The following day, we’re cruising along the interstate, and Rulon is explaining what it feels like to die. Or at least to come close. That he didn’t on the morning of Feb. 15, 2002, only added to his legend.
There’s a story the Gardner family liked to tell, about a doctor who helped deliver Rulon to the world. The doctor proclaimed, upon seeing the ninth of nine Gardner children, that Rulon would be accident-prone. Few prophecies have ever come truer. As a child, he sliced his thumb with a hatchet; gashed his leg on barbed wire; got tossed out of the bed of a pickup truck; and impaled his stomach with an arrow. That’s about one-tenth of a list that includes bicycle accidents and motorcycle wrecks; stitches and blood poisoning and staph infections; torn ligaments and separated shoulders; broken noses and arms and ribs and fingers. Not to mention the time Aleksandr Karelin threw Gardner on his head in 1997. His neck still stiffens, and requires chiropractic work, as a result.
None of that, though, stopped Gardner from winning gold in 2000, and again at the world championships in 2001. The following winter, he was out snowmobiling. He ascended a mountain. He paused to absorb a spectacular view. He pulled out his cell phone. “I’m on top of the world,” he told a friend. He felt indestructible.
But on his descent, he succumbed to the wilderness. His sled broke through ice, into water. Darkness fell. Temperatures dropped, below zero, below -10. Not a soul knew where Gardner was. He was soaked, shivering, borderline frozen in a nondescript clearing. His body temperature plummeted. He faded in and out of consciousness. If nobody found him by morning, he’d surely be dead.
A rescue helicopter appeared around 7 a.m., 18 hours after the adventure-turned-ordeal began. Gardner was airlifted to a hospital, and treated for severe frostbite. One toe looked like a small, brown, lifeless slug. It would eventually be amputated. The rest of his body survived — barely. His feet lost feeling. During subsequent treatments, they’d be covered in blood. He spent time in a wheelchair. The mere sight of his wrestling shoes would summon pain. Rational observers assumed his career was over.
Instead, two years later, he won another Olympic medal.
And a dangerous thought crystalized in his mind: “If I can do that, what else can I do? I can do anything. … I can withstand anything. I can overcome anything.”
Which leads him, now, to the “elephant in the room”: His weight. He’s almost 200 pounds heavier than when he wrestled. “It’s something I’ve always had a problem with,” he says.
But if 18 hours in subzero temps couldn’t kill me, how could a bunch of carbs?
Now, though, he realizes: “If I don’t get my s*** under control, I’m in trouble.”
Sincerity creeps into his voice. The sources of his obesity, he explains, are urges he can’t control. He’s addicted to food, just as several siblings are. As a child, one bite of bread became an entire loaf; one potato chip became an entire bag. Now, “I walk by a place with food, and the calories just start sucking to me like a little planet,” he says. “I walk in, and it’s like I have my own gravitational field, man. I seriously do. I feel it.”
And whereas he could choose to work hard in a wrestling room, or choose to persevere in the wilderness, he can’t just choose to not feel. One of our conversations about his weight occurred in the parking lot at Chuck-A-Rama, an all-you-can-eat buffet. An hour later, he had devoured a half-dozen plates of food. We returned the following day, and he binged again. He knows it’s an issue, but tells himself he’ll be fine. He’s invincible. He knows he should count calories — like he did on the Biggest Loser, when he shed almost 200 pounds — but he often doesn’t. “Feeling full is a security. It makes me feel comfortable,” he explains. It has ever since he’d finish farm chores at 10 p.m., when he’d eat oversize meals right before bed.
He’s determined to improve. To beat the addiction. To hold himself accountable. His sisters, at times, have tried to support one another in weight-loss endeavors. To hold one another accountable. But Rulon and the brothers have each attacked the problem on their own. “I can’t worry about anybody else besides me,” Rulon says.
“And I don’t want to die,” he continues. “I’d love to be 80, 90.” But he’s aware of cautionary tales. He points to public figures who couldn’t control their eating disorders. “All these guys that are dead,” he says. “And that’s gonna be me in 10 years if I don’t change something. A hundred percent.”
‘I’ve really gone nowhere’
Wrestling, for years, was his savior. It kept him in shape. It presented tangible goals. It offered a direct line between input and output, between effort and accomplishment. He was, in his own words, “mediocre.” But he “kept working, kept working,” and achieved. Results solidified his worldview: Toughness is a choice. Success is a choice. Survival is a choice. Each man for himself. “Kill or be killed.” Life may offer hardships. Belief and work ethic can beat them.
Until, that is, the believer stands off to the side, three feet back from a wrestling mat, helpless.
Last January, a spotlight hung from the ceiling. Gardner, the head wrestling coach at Herriman High School, remained just outside it. He waddled forward, and leaned in, shouting instructions to his wrestlers. But parents, and siblings, and high school girls were shouting too. Gardner’s voice was one of many. The din swallowed it up.
Wrestling success, in his coaching role, was no longer something over which he had chief control. He took the job at Herriman in 2018. They took fourth at state in Year 1. But then the school split in two. Numbers dwindled. In late January 2020, four of the team’s top wrestlers were sick or injured. Heading into a Wednesday meet, Gardner privately forecasted a beatdown. Then he arrived at the gym to learn that one of his healthy wrestlers, whom we’ll call Sam, was 1.4 pounds above weight.
So Sam ran. Back and forth, his feet pounding on hardwood, the loudest noises in the gym. He took an occasional detour up the bleachers. He dropped to the ground and pumped out pushups, situps, burpees. He tugged the hood of a gray Adidas sweatshirt tight around his face. He had two shirts underneath, and shorts under his pants. He kept running. He keeled over a trash can. His insides lurched.
“Keep going [Sam], c’mon,” Gardner yelped from across the gym.
Later, he turned to me. “These kids, they think hard work is showing up,” he said. “They have no idea what it takes.”
Sam eventually made weight. A couple hours later, Gardner patted him on the back as he headed to the mat. He got pinned in 90 seconds. The team lost. It wasn’t close. Twenty-four hours later, on senior night, they lost again. Gardner gathered the wrestlers in a side gym afterward, with Herriman’s halls mostly empty, a bit after 8 o’clock. He ripped into them. Frustrating? I asked him. “Super,” he muttered. “Super. Super, super, super.”
“I care too much,” he said. “I want these kids to be successful, I need them to be successful.” Their success was his success. And his success, therefore, sometimes felt out of his control.
The insurance world, too, has presented a steep learning curve. He’s optimistic, but still a novice. He hustles, calling clients and dictating text messages while driving, but progress takes time. His to-do list is long. He sometimes seems stressed. That direct line between input and output, between effort and success, has all but disappeared.
“I’m frustrated,” he admitted one afternoon. “I’m tired of making mistakes. I wanna be successful. I’m not doing this to screw around and waste time. I’m doing it to succeed. And you push yourself hard every day, but you never really seem to get anywhere. That’s the frustrating thing for me. I’ve worked so hard, but I’ve really gone nowhere.”
What is success?
Yet he has gone somewhere. Almost everywhere. More places than 99% of humans will ever go. He’s been to the top of the world. He’s been to dozens of states and countries. He’s met remarkable people of all kinds. He’s seen different cultures.
Nowhere? If that’s nowhere, I asked him, where are you trying to go?
There are two answers. One: “Once you win the Olympics, and then once you take that high, then you’re always on that high, and you’re like, ‘I want to go back to that,’ ” he explained. “I want to go back to that.” In other words, he always starts at “nowhere.” And he always strives to get somewhere.
The other answer, though, cuts to the heart of his life. “When I won the Olympics — OK, I’m successful,” he began. “When I made those investments, it set me back, and I lost everything.”
And then he realized, before I could even ask, that he’d never defined “success.”
He uses the word frequently. Sitting behind the wheel of his Durango, he searched aloud for a definition. He mentioned his rental home. He mentioned business. He mentioned money. He eventually settled on: “Success, for me, is gonna be having the disposable income to do whatever you want. To say, ‘Eh, I’m not gonna go in today. I’m not gonna push myself today.’ ”
Yet his entire life has been about pushing. The title of his book tells readers to “never stop.” On our last afternoon together, I asked him what his biggest fear was, and after an “um,” and a pause, and a cough, his answer revealed plenty.
“I started, I suppose, to not succeed,” he said. “I’ve been down and out. And most people are like, ‘Oh, you’ll never come back.’ The fear [is] that I’ll accept being down and stay there.” That in five, 10, 20, 30 years, he’ll look back on his wrestling days, on the fame they bled into, on the luxury they spawned, and think: “Man, I had it good back in the day. If only I’d have done something different.”
His voice got hushed as he pondered this. “You go from the high high, to hit rock bottom,” he said. “And I’ve seen so many people who are stuck on the bottom and can’t get back up. And I felt like I was gonna be stuck there. Because I had so many gifts given to me — across the board, from self-esteem, to worth, to people respecting me, people trusting me.” A lot of them vanished last decade. Hardship re-appeared.
“Now it’s like, ‘Gee, I’ve got a second chance,’” he said, and his voice picked back up. Sunlight beamed through a clearing in the clouds, and filtered in through his windshield. He turned inward: “Today’s the day to change. Today’s the day to get your s*** together. What are you gonna do?”
Rulon Gardner finds stability
A few months after we parted with goodbyes and a fist bump, after Gardner sped off into the night to get his s*** together, the most important person in his life flashed him a thumbs up on Facebook.
At the time, he and Meredith Mach hadn’t spoken in ages. They’d met 16 years ago, country dancing in Dallas. Mach’s friends would glance up and see Rulon carrying her across the dance floor. But she thought he was a bit cocky, and he thought she was “too good for me,” and their lives continued moving fast in different directions.
Last spring, though, they reconnected. Mach had seen Gardner’s promotion of an Olympic documentary about his life. They began talking. Then dating. She visited him in Utah. He visited her in California. COVID shutdowns carved out endless quality time to themselves.
And within a few months, they were engaged.
A few months later, in October, married.
“I feel so blessed to be able to have a future [with] such an amazing person,” Rulon wrote to his thousands of friends on Facebook.
“I love her and I feel that we have a bond,” he said on Valentine’s Day. “It’s hard to explain but [the] connection had been there for many years. Love her so much.”
Wedlock, he says, has brought “stability” to his life. But still, a few months in, parts of him felt stuck. Unsatisfied. His pre-COVID existence, which was “kinda grim,” lingered. So he and Meredith left it behind. They moved southwest, permanently, to St. George, Utah — in part because Rulon sensed “opportunity.”
He sensed it first in a ragged, lifeless warehouse, the floor scuffed, the walls empty. An old college buddy-turned-successful contractor had offered the space. Rulon set out to transform it into a wrestling club. He and some helpers laid down mats and taped them tight. They stayed late the night before its grand opening to tidy up. And on April 22, 2021, in the shadow of sandstone cliffs, on a humble, winding road, Rulon Gardner Gold Medal Gym was born.
Gardner talks enthusiastically about his plans to train young wrestlers there. He runs camps alongside fellow Olympians of yesteryear. He also dreams of bringing a Division I program to nearby Dixie State University. He still travels to coach, too. And to speak motivationally. And he still hunts clients. Insurance is still his main gig. He’s also involved in a workplace safety program, and in a high school sports streaming service. He occasionally color commentates on games.
The life he envisions — with Meredith, in “beauuutiful” St. George — includes all of that, and dances elusively in his brain. It includes a house that the college buddy helps build for him. It includes an expansive gym, “between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet,” with his memorabilia, plaques and trophies lining the walls.
It also includes health. His biggest fight remains against his own urges. He’s tried smartwatches that count steps. He’s tried punishing workouts “to get back to Beast Mode.” He’s tried salads and clementines; apples and almond butter; an InstaPot and nutritious, home-cooked meals. He says he’s down 40 pounds over the last 18 months, but commitment — and therefore his weight — ebbs and flows.
He’s realized, over the years, that he isn’t invincible. He admits he “probably never will” figure out life. And he knows his has been especially perplexing, chaotic, preposterous, borderline insane.
But he doesn’t speak about it in the past tense. He’s still pushing, striving for something more.
“The story,” he says, “is not complete.”
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