Call Rulon Gardner The Biggest Dreamer. The Olympic gold medalist and celebrated TV weight shedder may be 40 years old, but he tells SI that he isn't done with the sport that first propelled him into cartwheels.
"I'm not retired," he says. "I still love to wrestle and I still have some wrestling left in me." Gardner didn't compete as planned at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City last weekend, because he couldn't cut the necessary pounds for the weigh-in on Friday. The maximum allowable weight for those in the heaviest class is 264.5 pounds. Gardner, who at his heaviest tipped the scales at 474 pounds, had dropped down to 269 six hours before the deadline.
For wrestlers who often crudely subtract pounds in order to stay under a certain weight, the ritual is customary. Hit the sauna and do some cardio on the mourning of weigh-ins to lose as much water weight as possible. Make weight by a feather or two, and then start rehydrating and replenishing calories as soon as the goal is reached.
"The last two days I had 17 pounds to cut. I was feeling good," he says. Extreme as it sounds, Gardner had done this sort of thing before -- only not as 40 year old. "In the past I'd feel OK," he said. "That morning I didn't feel good about pushing my body. I started feeling lightheaded." At that point, in consultation with a trainer, he began taking in fluids and immediately felt stronger. But that also added four or five pounds to his frame, and essentially ended his comeback.
The comeback started a couple of years ago, out of necessity, when Gardner attended a wrestling hall-of-fame ceremony and looked at photos of himself after the event. "Oh, my hell!" he told himself. "Do I really look like that?"
As a Mormon, Gardner abstains from alcohol and tobacco, but he had another vice: "Candy," he says woefully. "I thought, 'Three for a dollar? Hey, why not have six or nine?' I felt indestructible. I can't die of hypertension. I'm Rulon Gardner."
In fact Gardner has had more than one brush with danger. Gardner survived a plane crash, a motorcycling accident, a self-inflicted arrow wound that punctured his abdomen and a night in the wilderness after a snowmobiling mishap that cost him a toe. But this health spiral was different.
His sister, Gerry, a cardiologist and the oldest of ten Gardner siblings, read him the medical riot act. He already had high blood pressure (180 over 120) and severe sleep apnea, and was a candidate for congestive heart failure. At his athletic peak, Gardner had been a tower of strength and stamina, often wearing down his opponents in the closing seconds of matches. His resting heart rate, which had been 45 to 55 beats per minute ten years earlier, had risen to as many as 100 beats per minute. His father, Reed, a farmer in Wyoming, had recently passed away, which served as a warning to his son. A local bank pulled the sponsorship of his gym in Logan, Utah -- it's back now as Gold's Gym -- so bills started mounting as his health began deteriorating.
"I thought about my family, my future," he says. "I was putting my health at risk. I had hit rock bottom. This was like hitting the reset button. It was a second chance at life and good health. I thought about things in my life that made me happy."
One of those was wrestling, if only he could get back in the gym, work out and feel fit again. Unfortunately, he was many chocolate bars removed from being able to do that. And the man who once worked as a P.E. instructor figured he also needed to practice what he taught.
The celebrated stint on the TV reality show
He wrestled in exhibitions and training gyms, and felt his technique returning. He also followed the same weight-reduction plan he had used in 2000, when he toppled the heavily-favored Russian Alexander Karelin to win the Olympic gold medal, and again in 2004 to win Olympic bronze in Athens. "The problem was I hadn't been down to that weight in eight years," he says. "My body wasn't used to that anymore. It was telling me, 'Whoa, we don't know what this weight is like. What are you doing here?'"
Last Friday, Gardner knew the Olympic chase was over. He put a positive spin on the health benefits he'd gained and offered his help as a training partner to Dremiel Byers, who clinched the heavyweight spot on the U.S. Greco-Roman team, as expected.
However, the relationship between the two has seemingly cooled, perhaps because Gardner and his larger-than-life personality have been in the spotlight while out of the sport, while Byers has largely toiled within the spotlight of his sport, but not beyond. At 37, Byers, an Army staff sergeant, has amassed a stellar career record that includes a world title in 2002. But he was often thwarted by Gardner early in his career and placed seventh in his only Olympic appearance four years ago.
Veteran U.S. Greco-Roman coach Steven Fraser says he has welcomed Gardner's input. "People see how hard it works and it rubs off on other guys," Fraser says. "If Rulon wants to be involved, he's always welcome."
Gardner has also worked with NBC in the past and he could conceivably join the booth again this summer. His input would be welcome for a team that took home just one gold medal at the world championships last season, and Gardner believes he knows why.
"The Russians," he says.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many of the athletes from the wrestling powerhouse spread themselves out over the breakaway republics. Other athletes, with more freedom to travel and relocate, have taken up residence in whatever country is willing to compensate them and fast track them to citizenship. "On the last day of competition in Beijing, 15 of the 18 medalists were from the former Soviet Union," he says. "Instead of one, you have a whole army."
Additionally the lure of mixed martial arts has pulled away a handful of wrestlers, such as Daniel Cormier and Ben Askren, and those numbers may keep growing. Even Jordan Burroughs, the team's lone defending world champ, had expressed interest in the MMA world. Though, he now says the lure of winning multiple world title in Olympic-style wrestling is greater.
Though Gardner hasn't set a date for his next match, he insists there will be one. And he won't dismiss the notion, however farfetched, of trying to make an Olympic team at 44. Chris Campbell, a bronze medalist at 37 at the Barcelona Games in 1992, is the oldest U.S. wrestling medalist on the books. "I feel like I'm 20 again," says Gardner. "I'll wrestle again and keep defying odds. I've had a few second chances at life and I just need to be smart about this one."