What Rulon Gardner Has Been Up (and Down) to - Sports Illustrated

What Rulon Gardner Has Been Up (and Down) to

Since making Olympic history in 2000, the wrestler has battled his share of adversity. But he has never wavered in his commitment to motivating—whether it’s young wrestlers, those in the business world or, not least of all, himself.
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Rulon Gardner is crammed into the driver’s seat of a 2006 Volkswagen Beetle. As he weaves around trucks, zipping up I-15 North through Provo, Utah, he may be the biggest human on the highway, packed into one of the tiniest vehicles. But he just loves that little red car, with the odometer approaching 300,000 miles.

Gardner is strong enough to handle the steering wheel with two thick fingers and a thumb. Gus, his 14-year-old Shih Tzu, sits on his left shoulder, staring out through the cracked windshield at the cars ahead. “My parrot,” Gardner jokes.

The car has logged a lot of miles, and in some ways come out a little worse for the wear, but it just never seems to quit. It has a lot in common with the guy manhandling the steering wheel.

Gardner is keeping busy in his late 40s. Maybe not quite as busy as when he grew up on the farm, milking cows and carrying irrigation pipe from sunup to sundown. But between a full-time job selling insurance and speaking engagements across the country, he has a full plate.

And 20 years after pulling off the greatest upset in Olympic wrestling history, Gardner is chasing more medals. He pulls into a parking lot surrounded by snow-covered peaks, leaves Gus in the car and steps into the chilly mountain air in his gym shorts.

He strolls past a crowd of high school girls, and none of them even turn their heads to notice him as his towering figure walks through the rows of narrow red lockers, and hangs a left toward the wrestling room.

It’s the second week of February and Coach Gardner—his kids just call him Rulon—has four high-schoolers in the Utah 6A State Championships.

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***

Rulon still feels his match against Aleksandr Karelin every day. No, not that match. Not the Olympic Greco-Roman super heavyweight final in 2000 when, with a 1–0 decision, he handed the Russian Bear his first loss in 13 years, and scored the first point against him in six. His body reminds him of the first time they wrestled each other, the semifinals of the 1997 world championships, when Karelin dropped Gardner on his head and broke two bones in his neck. Rulon stretches constantly, and likes to lean against railings to relieve the pressure. He’ll be standing there, then suddenly, and violently, whip his neck sideways and then whip it back in the other direction, a tic that offers temporary relief.

It’s one in a long line of injuries he has battled throughout his life. Most famously, Gardner spent a February 2002 night in the wilderness after his snowmobile overturned and dunked him into an icy river multiple times. The frostbitten night on the mountain cost him a toe, after which he recovered to win a bronze medal in Athens in 2004—a feat that’s as much a part of his legacy as the gold in Sydney.

Currently Gardner is missing a tooth, the incisor to the right of his two front teeth. The culprit: one of his own wrestlers. They were wrestling around when an inadvertent headbutt knocked it out. Gardner says the whole front of his mouth is veneer anyway, a result of decades of inadvertent headbutts. So he’ll need yet another implant, but there’s just no time during the season.

Wrestling has taken Gardner to 44 countries. He’s seen countless gyms from his hometown in Wyoming to the University of Nebraska to the USA Wrestling Olympic training center. The Herriman High wrestling room has one regulation-sized circle, and the dark blue mat extends out to light blue padded walls. There are rows of pull-up bars and headshots of wrestlers who’ve qualified for the Utah state tournament in years past. It’s in this room that Gardner, who became Herriman’s head coach before the 2018–19 season, wants to impart the wisdom that made him an Olympic champion, and that he believes is his duty to pass on to the next generation of wrestlers.

Gardner became famous as a Wyoming farm boy, but his Mormon family has ties back to Utah for generations. His great-great-grandfather Archibald Gardner was a bishop in the church and helped build the famed Salt Lake Temple. A good friend of Rulon’s had a nephew whose son wrestled at Herriman, so Gardner came to a practice and offered to help a local club team. When the high school team needed a new coach soon after that, he got the job.

The four state qualifiers pair off. There are two lightweights and two heavyweights, making for convenient practice partners. It’s a fairly light day—just 15 minutes of drilling, followed by two full six-minute matches for each wrestler, same as they’ll go tomorrow at States, with just 30 seconds between periods. Rulon draws on his own experience, knowing what made the best preparation for him before countless tournaments at the highest possible levels. He walks around the perimeter of the room, shoes off, thick white socks resting below his tree-trunk calves, and watches his kids spar.

Some of the advice is technical, some is motivational. “What are you doing down there?” he bellows at one wrestler who is splayed out on all fours underneath an opponent. “You’ve gotta be a man! You gotta get up!”

Nearly a dozen younger members of the team who failed to qualify for States are doing their own drills in one corner of the room. At the end of practice, Gardner has the team sit on a rolled-up mat in the corner of the room so he and the assistants can deliver a speech. He talks to the state qualifiers about visualizing their day. He talks to the teammates who’ll be there as spectators about letting that experience motivate them for next year.

After the speeches, assistant coach Rad Martinez gathers everyone in the center of the mat. Martinez is a Utahn and three-time NCAA qualifier at Clarion in Pennsylvania who also went 15–3 as a pro martial arts fighter. He tells everyone to put their hands in. “State titles on three,” Martinez says. “One, two, three, state titles!”

***

Gardner is rolling two full suitcases behind him through the corridor outside a series of ballrooms at a DoubleTree hotel in New Jersey. He turns the corner and ditches the Velcro brace on his right wrist. He pops his head in the back of the room, looking out at the men and women in business attire, sitting in rows and staring ahead at a PowerPoint presentation about the insurance industry.

“These are always fun crowds,” Gardner says quietly. That’s good news. He’s the keynote speaker.

Gardner stands in front of the crowd and runs through his well-rehearsed life story. From the Wyoming farm where he grew up the youngest of nine siblings, through his struggles as a student with dyslexia, all the way to the Olympic medal stand, to his night on the mountain and back to the Olympic podium. He talks about his Seven Steps to Success, which are outlined in his autobiography.

He apologizes to the room for his hoarse voice, which he blames on his coaching. “My voice is a little scraggly because I care,” he tells them, to some polite chuckles.

After the speech he heads back to the hallway and opens one of his suitcases, which is stuffed with copies of his book and posters from the old “Got Milk?” ad campaign that show him holding two full pails in front of a dairy cow.

On the posters, Rulon is frozen in time, even as those days move further in the rearview. On this very trip, he was disappointed because he would have liked to go to the famed Carnegie Deli, whose main restaurant in Manhattan closed in 2016 after nearly 80 years. Rulon says it’s a shame—they used to have two pictures of him hanging on the wall. But life moves on.

Now, his dark gray, short-sleeve button-down shirt dangles over his belly and hangs out in front of him, unlike the singlets that cling to his body in both the poster and on the book cover. But the shaved head and approachable demeanor remain.

Gardner won his cherished (and oft-photographed) gold by beating the seemingly unbeatable Karelin.

Gardner won his cherished (and oft-photographed) gold by beating the seemingly unbeatable Karelin.

Attendees stand in line for a minute of his attention. They drop $20 bills on the table for books with personalized inscriptions. Gardner poses for photo after photo, always holding the 2004 bronze medal and letting his admirers hold the gold. He lifts women up off the ground with one arm, if they want him to, and most of them do. It’s like he’s sitting in the strongman booth at a carnival and they want to document his strength. He lets the manager of one local insurance outlet put him in a headlock for their photo. They look at the picture and Rulon says, “Now you tell them, if you don’t hit your numbers this month, you know who’s coming around.” High school wrestling coaches ask Rulon to look into their camera phones and deliver motivational speeches for their teams. That’s easy; he does that every day back in Utah. “Hey Mount Olive wrestlers, this is Rulon Gardner. You may have heard of me …” He obliges every request until he’s the last one in the room, packs up his suitcase with his unsold merchandise and heads out the door. It’s back to Utah, his day job and his team.

***

JRI insurance has a branch in Payson, 60 miles south of Salt Lake City, about a 50-minute drive south of Herriman High. The office sits in a strip of brick storefronts, and the front door opens to a wall of pristine, snowcapped mountains. While Gardner has been working out of the office for a few months, he officially moved his stuff in last night. He bought a house nearby, so his only long commute is up I-15 to the high school.

He again cuts a hulking figure, now situated behind a desk in a Dri-FIT, long-sleeved black athletic shirt, gray slacks and black sneakers. On the desk he has nothing but a binder, a notebook and a red Powerade Zero Sugar. Empty shelves line the wall to his right, but various items from his vast memorabilia collection fill the ones to his left. As he’s unpacked boxes in his new home and found items he barely remembers receiving, some have made it to JRI.

He has a torch from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, which he got to carry right before his snowmobile accident. He has awards, trophies and plaques, plus T-shirts signed by fellow Olympians. There’s just one catch: He has so many autographed items, he doesn’t know who signed many of them. The memories and Sharpie ink fade with time. He stares at a row of signed baseballs and muses that he threw the ceremonial first pitch at a 2000 ALDS game in Yankee Stadium to José Canseco, so one of them is probably signed by him.

But there’s also a football signed by John Elway, Steve Young, Warren Moon and some smudged names that are harder to make out. There are two Patriots balls, one with the Super Bowl XXXVIII logo and one with signatures from a bunch of players. “When you’re famous,” he says matter-of-factly, “people just give you stuff.”

It’s fitting that Gardner sells insurance. Think about how it’s presented to the typical American consumer in TV commercials. From Allstate telling you to prepare for mayhem, to State Farm handling a series of calamities at Chris Paul’s house to Farmers dealing with any nightmare scenario J.K. Simmons can conjure. And who’s seen more accidents than Rulon Gardner? His family barn burned down when he was a kid. Before the 2004 Olympic Trials he was in a motorcycle accident and then dislocated his right wrist punching the bleachers after losing his cool during a pickup basketball game. Three years later he walked away from a plane crash into Lake Powell with only a minor hip injury and a concussion. His coworker at JRI, Lydia Woltjen, jokes that she’s sure to wear a seatbelt when Rulon is driving.

Gardner took the tests required to get his insurance license in 2018. It is the latest foray in a string of jobs that includes owning a gym, driving a forklift and working as a medical device rep for Johnson & Johnson, which is when he put many of those miles on the Beetle. The branch is independent, meaning they can sell policies through multiple insurance companies. Rulon’s office handles the gamut of insurance types, and he’s become well-versed in life, health, property, casualty, home and auto.

A potential new client comes in for what Rulon calls a one-on-one. It’s more of a one-on-two. The client takes a seat facing Rulon’s desk, and Lydia sits in Rulon’s chair while he stands behind her. Rulon schmoozes, telling stories and jokes before Lydia steers things back toward business. Rulon raves about Lydia, who has years of experience working in the Utah Insurance Department, and he alternately calls her both the brains and the muscle of the operation. “I’m the eye candy,” Rulon jokes. “It’s sour, but it’s still candy.” Rulon asks the client to share some of his corporate financial goals, and Lydia gives the pitch about what services they can offer.

One client leaves and it’s on to the next one. They relocate to Lydia’s desk in the main entryway. Rulon stands and leans against her desk, hovering above a speakerphone, mindlessly clicking his pen as they discuss auto insurance quotes for a father who wants to buy a car for a teenage son who’s already been in a fender bender.

It’s an interesting twist, being both the new guy and the celebrity. He certainly has no problem using his name to draw people in. He’s printed off an endless supply of 5½-by-8½" photos on glossy paper—on one side, the Olympic referee is raising a triumphant Gardner’s hand as the defeated Russian Karelin is scowling with a hand on his hip. On the other side is all of Rulon’s professional contact info and a list of insurance brands they hawk—and guess what Rulon signs every time somebody bugs him for an autograph. Another client comes out of a meeting with one of Rulon’s coworkers, and on the way out the door he spots the heavyweight. “Oh, do you know who he is?” Rulon’s coworker asks his client. And Rulon is thrust into the same conversation he’s had with countless strangers over the last 20 years.

Perhaps most importantly, in this whole arrangement, is that the company is accommodating of his schedule. In a normal year, not interrupted by a pandemic, the high school wrestling season runs November to February. After that it’s club season until April, followed by tournaments and clinics through the summer, not to mention occasional speaking engagements across the country. The state tournament is an all-day affair on both Wednesday and Thursday, and JRI has no issue with him logging those hours at the arena. Consider those client recruitment days anyway, with Coach Rulon happily passing along his fliers to a steady stream of coaches, parents, tournament officials and others eager to chat him up between matches.

***

The arena at Utah Valley University is set up with eight wrestling mats in two rows of four. The 8,500-seat gym is the former home of an NBA G-League team that’s since moved to Delaware and a former team in a now defunct arena football league.

Gardner has a little car and a little traveling companion: Gus.

Gardner has a little car and a little traveling companion: Gus.

Hundreds of wrestlers are running around, stretching or sparring to warm up. Gardner is standing along the center line between the rows of mats with an eye on his four guys, who are split into pairs to get loose. One of his lightweights catches an elbow in the wrong spot and blood pours from his nose, seeping into his warm-up shirt and splattering on the crowded mat. Nobody bats an eye as the wrestler shoves gauze up his nostril and his practice partner sprays the mat down with disinfectant.

Officially, Rulon is coaching four kids at States. Practically speaking, he is coaching more than that. Rulon moseys around and can’t stop himself from giving advice to some of the wrestlers on other teams. There’s a curly-headed heavyweight from Fremont High, Weston Warr, whom Rulon has taken a liking to after they’ve spoken at a few tournaments throughout the last two seasons. Rulon even gave him his phone number so they could text each other. Warr checked with his own coaches to make sure he wasn’t doing anything against any rules and they said, No, you should let Rulon keep giving you advice. While some of Rulon’s own wrestlers may essentially be over it, others in the arena are more starstruck by the presence of an all-time great. Warr, a senior with braces on his teeth, clutches his practice partner’s foot two feet off the ground and stares back with rapt attention as Rulon discusses technique.

In some ways, Gardner blends in amid the hundreds of wrestlers and dozens of coaches. Everyone is focused, with the pressure of lifelong individual dreams, team titles and possibly college scholarships on the line. In other ways, Rulon has a presence. He is quiet but he holds people’s attention when he’s talking to them.

They clear the floor and the jumbotron hanging from the ceiling lists which bouts will begin on which mats. Wrestlers are seeded into 16-man brackets in 14 weight classes, and each round of the tournament starts with the lightest weights and progresses on upward to Rulon’s old division. On-deck wrestlers stay on the floor in the warmup area as those with a longer wait time retreat to the bleachers. Herriman has a section in the arena’s upper deck for teammates, parents and supporters.

Herriman’s lightest wrestler, Jack Lounsbury, is up first. His headgear is on, his knee pad is up and his warmup outfit is cast aside, as he’s down to just his singlet. Gardner stands behind him, hands on Jack’s shoulders, imparting a few final words of wisdom as they wait for his mat assignment.

Each mat is set up the same. There’s a circle in the middle where the action takes place, and each wrestler gets one corner with chairs for two coaches. Most coaches sit in the chairs, but Rulon stands behind his. He says he liked when his coaches would stand, and he thinks it helps him be more animated.

Jack gets out to an early lead, but is pinned despite being ahead in points. After the ref raises his opponent’s arm, Rulon picks up his sweaty T-shirt and shorts off the mat and carries them back to the warmup area. Jack has his head down, arms grabbing the trusses along the side of the metal bleachers. It’s an empty feeling every wrestler knows, including Rulon, who puts a hand on his wrestler’s shoulder, looks him in the eye and delivers a reassuring message.

Elsewhere, on another mat, Jack’s teammate Jacob Hendrickson has suffered the same fate—getting pinned despite being ahead—with two assistant coaches in his corner because the matches ran concurrently. Herriman High has a break now, as the tourney progresses through the middleweights, before the school’s two other wrestlers compete. Rulon doesn’t go up the stairs to his seat during the break, opting instead to stay in the holding pen. He leans against the metal barricade, right next to the folded-up wall of lower level seats that can extend to cover the floor. He stands alone, essentially in the corner of the gym farthest away from any crowd. This is not LeBron James sitting courtside at his son’s basketball game, jovially stepping onto the court, with everyone in the gym streaming his every reaction online. Just an Olympic champion, quietly watching the high-schoolers competing in front of him, chatting only when somebody new sidles up next to him and starts a conversation.

“He talks to every single person that wants to talk to him, and he’ll sign an autograph for anybody,” his assistant coach, Martinez, says. “He’ll take five minutes with someone or an hour with someone if they want. And all the accomplishments that he’s had, and all the stories that he tells, it all couldn’t happen to a better person. He deserves all the accolades that he has.”

It’s nice to be able to do this, Gardner says. He remembers coming home to the Wyoming state tournament shortly after he won Olympic gold, when his mere presence was too much of a disruption. He had to leave and go to a nearby mall to accommodate all the people who wanted to talk to him and get autographs. Now he’s just one of the coaches.

Rulon says he’s still willing to go out of his way for people he trusts, but he can’t fulfill every request. He’s grown wary of some people, hardened a little by 20 years of people asking him for things. He’s a natural people pleaser, but now he asks for things in return. You want me to do a clinic for free? Can I talk to the parents about insurance afterward? You want me to come give a speech? Do you pay other people? He jokes that it took him too long to figure one con that was pulled on him repeatedly: Organizations would make up some award to give him, largely as an excuse to get him to show up for free for an event to which they could sell tickets. Now he knows better.

But despite being the most recognizable face in the gym, one of the most eventful parts of his day is when a tournament official informs him that he has to wear his credential. Rulon plays the “Don’t you know who I am?” card—but, seriously, don’t you know who he is? Rulon doesn’t like wearing his badge on a lanyard that chokes his neck, so he tries to avoid it. But policy is policy. He clips his ID to a carpenter loop on his pants. “The Olympics aren’t this strict,” he says, shaking his head.

His two lightweights are both eliminated on Day 1 but the two heavier weights, Talmage Carman and Traycee Norman, win two matches apiece. Both will advance to Day 2, starting with the semifinals in the morning, two wins away from the top spot on the podium.

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***

Rulon is new to the neighborhood, though really his home is more farm community than neighborhood, with horses running through penned-in yards along his drive to the office. Cows roam beyond a fence in his backyard, visible from a driveway that runs alongside his house to a fleet of cars in the back—a Ford Excursion, Ford F-250, Dodge Durango and the beloved VW Beetle. He says one day he took a trash can up to the curb, nobody ever came to pick it up, and two days later a neighbor dragged it back in. Oh.

The living room, in a more modest home than the crowded driveway might suggest, is full of reminders that he’s lived a charmed life of celebrity. A bookcase next to the TV houses a plaque commemorating his induction to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame; the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award, given annually to the top amateur athlete in the country; an ESPY for being named 2000’s male U.S. Olympian of the year; and other accolades.

But Rulon has lived 49 years now, and not all have been as kind as that brief stretch after he became famous overnight, going from total unknown to Leno and Conan guest in a span of 10 days. Many of the news headlines written about him since 2012 focused on his bankruptcy filing, the result of a fraud case, and a quest to recoup his gold medal, which he couldn’t afford to bring back into his possession.

His other post-Olympic claim to fame is that in April 2011, Gardner became the first contestant ever to quit NBC’s hit weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser. That’s the experience—and the last time most people have seen him on the public stage—he says is most misunderstood. He holds up his thumb and index finger a couple inches apart. That’s how thick the NDA was, he says. That’s why people don’t know the full story. He isn’t supposed to talk about it.

“Someday the book will come out,” Gardner says.

Do you want to tell that story now?

He decides he can finally say a little.

“I didn’t choose to leave,” he says. “I lost 12 pounds [my last week], why would I leave? I didn’t want to leave.”

But that’s how the story has always gone. In episode 16, he was bungee jumping over New Zealand’s Milford Sound, espousing the importance of winning immunity to remain on the show. In episode 17, he arrived at the group weigh-in wearing his cut-off yellow T-shirt, jogged up a flight of stairs, turned to face his fellow contestants, clasped his hands behind his back and announced: “This is gonna be my last time on the scale. At this time, I’m asking to leave The Biggest Loser for a personal reason.” And that was it. One of his fellow contestants even remarked in a solo confessional to the camera how strange it was not to get a more detailed explanation.

Rulon’s experience with The Biggest Loser started just like every other contestant’s. He already had a relationship with NBC, working as a TV commentator for the network’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Still, he says when he got hold of a network executive on the phone, he was informed he’d have to go through the full tryout process. That season featured partners competing in tandem. There were parents with their kids, spouses and siblings. Rulon signed up with his friend Justin Pope, a fellow wrestler (who beat Rulon in junior high) and long-time friend. At the time, Rulon and his then wife were operating a gym in Logan, Utah, and Justin was an investor. After a first interview in Salt Lake City and a second-round tryout in California, they were all set.

Rulon tipped the scale at 474 pounds at the onset of the show, up more than 200 from the 265-pound division in which he competed at the 2004 Olympics. He and Justin were the heaviest team on the ranch.

“It’s a tragedy,” Rulon said, fighting back tears as he stood shirtless, addressing his weight in the season premiere. “It’s horrifying for me and my family.”

He was a success, in the way success is measured on the show. He outlasted 15 contestants and shed 173 pounds, looking notably trimmer and more fit at 301 in his last official weight check. But behind the scenes, he says it was miserable.

Rulon feels he was treated unfairly. He believes NBC wanted to make him look like the “Olympic brat.” He says trainers would do things like give him too short a jump rope or put a massive weight plate on his back while he was planking. Some would see this as good coaching—that when you have someone you know can be pushed as hard as Rulon, it’s your job as a trainer to push them. Rulon says it went beyond that—and that behind the scenes it was worse, that the people involved in making the show were manipulative, and gossip among contestants was rampant. There was an incident in New Zealand, when contestants had just returned to the show after a holiday break, and he needed a chiropractor. They told him that wasn’t allowed; he told them he couldn’t get out of bed without it.

The specifics, he says, he really can’t get into. Someday those details may come out. But the idea of him—of Rulon Gardner—being a quitter, that one he’s ready to put to bed.

“There’s things that need to be addressed in my life back home,” Rulon told the camera after his announcement. “I feel that my personal goals have been reached here on The Biggest Loser, and it’s my time to go home. I got my health back, I got my fitness and I got my life back. And that was the real reason that I was coming to The Biggest Loser. I’m happy.”

And that’s the story that he stuck to for nine years.

Gardner put out statements after the episode aired, too, saying he’d achieved his goal and was ready to go home to his wife. He played the part. He now says it wasn’t true.

[A PR rep for the show, which has since been relaunched on the NBC/Comcast-owned USA Network, could not make anyone involved with Gardner’s season of the show available for comment.]

Cara Castronuova was a trainer on the show for only one season, which happened to be Rulon’s. She says she has only positive things to say about her experience being on the show in general and working with Rulon in particular. “For me, it was like, They’re trusting me to train an Olympic champion? That’s awesome,” she said. As a pro boxer, she identified with his wrestler mentality. She also appreciated his respect for her as a woman, saying it can sometimes be tough for her to earn the trust and respect of male clients, but that wasn’t the case with Rulon. “I found it to be really awesome that he was so down to put his trust in a female that’s a quarter of his size and let me teach him boxing form, and that he took me seriously.”

They grew close during the show, expressed mutual love for each other as they hugged goodbye in Rulon’s final scene and spoke a few times in the years that followed. Castranuova says she thought Rulon would win the whole competition and was shocked when he left. She also says Rulon has since confided in her that he didn’t want to leave, but she says she would have no way of knowing if that was true. If anyone above her had made any sort of decision like that, she wouldn’t be privy to it.

Bob Harper, a trainer on the show since Season 1, and the face of the program when it relaunched earlier in 2020, is among those whom Rulon thought he was getting close to. Rulon says he and Harper spoke in one of the show’s vans for an hour and a half after he announced his exit. He says Bob wanted to stay in touch and keep helping him live healthier. He says Harper told him, I waited my whole career for you. “He said, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow,’” Rulon says. “And I’ve never heard a word.” It’s been nine years. [Harper declined an interview request through a spokesperson.]

Gardner was also irritated by some of the sniping from fellow contestants. In 2012, after trimming down on the show, Gardner mounted a comeback attempt for the London Olympics, eight years after medaling in Athens. He says that after his comeback bid fell short—the result of the 40-year-old not being able to make weight on the day of the U.S. Olympic trials—a contestant gleefully chirped to the public, “Once a quitter, always a quitter,” even though Rulon says she knew he wasn’t really a quitter. That one stung.

Through it all, though, he says he’s still glad he went on the show. “Of course,” he says. “Because I learned so much about myself. I learned how to count calories. Now I’m big again, I need to go back and get up early in the morning, set time aside. … I know what I need to do, now I need to focus, and The Biggest Loser taught you that. And that’s positive.”

After the failed comeback attempt in 2012, he even came back to the peacock, working again for NBC’s coverage of those London Games from their New York City office.

The show has faced plenty of controversy over the years (including criticisms of the weight-loss methods and their lasting effects, famed trainer Jillian Michaels giving her team caffeine pills and allegations of contestants taking weight-loss pills) and Rulon says former contestants are divided into two camps. He says some, many of whom gain back considerable weight after they leave the show, feel the experience ruined their lives. Others are still “drinking the Kool-Aid,” he says.

Rulon’s weight is still a battle. The night before the tournament, he stopped at a buffet restaurant for dinner. “Welcome back,” a man on the waitstaff said, as Rulon made his way to a table. “Welcome back?” Rulon chuckled, after he’d left, and he made a face that said: Busted. But he’s a recognizable customer, and several other diners came up to tell Rulon they were fans or he was an inspiration as they passed by his table on their way to and from the buffet.

How much does he weigh now? He won’t say. He was willing to answer questions about anything—frostbite, bankruptcy, divorce—but not that. Despite spending four months in a high-school wrestling environment where weight is an obsession and scales are plentiful, he says he avoided stepping on one the whole season.

But he estimates his weight is about where he started on Loser. That was just a small dumbbell shy of 500.

***

There is one tangible positive in Rulon’s life as a direct result of his appearance on The Biggest Loser. He wouldn’t have his gold medal without it.

Rulon was strapped for cash when he went on the show, and worried about how he’d make money while he was away for so long, so a friend lent him some. Rulon gave him the medal as collateral, and they made a deal that he’d hold onto Rulon’s prized possession until he could pay the debt. So when Rulon filed for bankruptcy and authorities collected his possession to be auctioned off, they couldn’t touch the medal.

This is another touchy subject for Rulon, though one he discusses openly. He laments how people saw his name and the word bankruptcy in headlines and assumed the worst. “Former athlete goes broke” is a common trope, oftentimes the result of overspending or falling down the wrong path. Rulon says he was a victim, and the paper trail backs him up.

It’s a long story. The short version, Rulon says, is that he was presented an opportunity to invest in a real estate venture in 2006. A friend introduced Rulon to their niece, who just needed a small loan to get more financing. She presented a business plan that looked solid. She showed him real estate purchase agreements, contracts and more. Rulon started paying her $24,000 a month.

The problem: She had been fabricating documents, according to the FBI, including the ones she showed Rulon.

He paid her $24K for the first six months, then $36K for the next three, about a quarter million total. She used that money to get a loan for $1.2 million, which later had to be repaid with substantial interest and late fees. Rulon was partially on the hook.

After an FBI investigation, she pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering and was sentenced to 34 months in prison. Rulon is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution and he gets $50 a month—enough for about a tank and a half of gas in his Beetle.

Even as he gets his feet under himself and recovers financially, he feels betrayed. He thinks about headlines in the Star Valley Independent, back in his hometown in Wyoming that was so happy to claim him when things were going well.

“It tarnishes your name,” Gardner said of going through an ordeal like that. “People think, ‘Oh, Rulon Gardner is a fraud.’ Or, ‘Rulon Gardner is not trustworthy.’ They don’t realize that sometimes it’s not you, it’s other people around you.”

Gardner’s quest to win back his medal became fodder for the press, but coverage just looped it in with his well-known financial issues. Few knew the ironic twist, the only reason he even had a chance to earn back his medal. Because it wasn’t sitting in some rich collector’s safe after an auction, it was just being held onto by an old friend waiting to be made whole. “I probably would have lost the medal for good if I hadn’t gone on the show,” Rulon said. “Little do you know what’s coming up in life.”

And he’s since gotten smarter about managing his finances and investments. He has two lawyer friends in particular whom he talks to about business decisions.

“Now it’s like, ‘O.K., let’s be smart about any decisions in the future,’” he said. “In life you make mistakes, you learn from them and move forward. You can’t sit and dwell on it. At points, there were times I thought, ‘You know what, just give up. Just quit.’ I’m like, no, I’m not gonna quit. I’m not gonna just sit down and take whatever happens.”

Because Rulon Gardner isn’t a quitter. Not on the TV show. Not during the night on the mountain waiting for a rescue helicopter to spot him, or the grueling recovery from frostbite and hypothermia. Not even after his failed 2012 Olympic attempt. He made another comeback attempt before the 2016 Rio Olympics at age 44. Part of that, he concedes, was because nothing helped him keep his weight down like wrestling. When he was an active athlete, he never took a day off. And he was searching for that mindset again. He also takes pride in the fact that even if he wouldn’t have ultimately taken his old practice partner Dremiel Byers’s spot on the ’12 Olympic team, at least he made everyone in the room work a little harder. That’s the attitude he’ll never shake.

“That same drive that helped me succeed [in wrestling], is the same drive that helped me survive in the wilderness,” he said. “It helps me get back on my feet and take on the world again.”

***

Rulon is walking carefully. It takes the lower half of his body a little longer to warm up in the morning, and he happened to roll his ankle two or three times yesterday. The result of having no feeling in his feet is that sometimes he’ll miss a step. Curbs can be trouble if he’s not watching his landing spot. So can wrestling mats. Even if a mat is just an inch or two thick, a full day of stepping on and off of them can lead to a few missteps.

Gardner's snowmobile wreck made a lasting impression on him: He reflects on it frequently, and it has cost him feeling in his feet.

Gardner's snowmobile wreck made a lasting impression on him: He reflects on it frequently, and it has cost him feeling in his feet.

His wrestlers are also, more literally, taking a while to warm up. It’s Day 2 of the state tourney. As yesterday’s scene repeats, with wrestlers from various schools swarming the mats to get loose, Herriman’s two heavier weights are nowhere to be seen.

Rulon wishes they were on the mat warming up already, but he repeats a phrase he’s said a few times this week: “You can’t want it for them.” In some ways, this is one of the toughest parts of the job. Some kids want it more than others, but few want it as bad as he used to, 20 or 30 years ago. That would be impossible. Rulon’s ascendance was a once-in-a-generation confluence of natural strength, work ethic and a burning desire to get off the farm.

Rulon has to toe the line. He wants to push the kids as hard as he can, the way old coaches pushed him, trying to be a force in their lives that leads them to greatness. But he also knows he can’t risk pushing them away. His practice room simply can’t have the same intensity as the ones at USA Wrestling or the University of Nebraska.

He’s dealing with coaches, parents and—for the first time this year—college recruiters. That’s another tricky one. He wants the best for all his kids. He wants to convince every college recruiter to give his kids a shot, and a head start on the rest of their lives. But he also knows he’s Rulon Gardner. His word carries sway and people love to talk. It would hurt Rulon’s reputation if he oversold one of his athletes and they didn’t back up his praise.

But none of that is to say Talmage and Traycee don’t want it. As heavier weights, they just have a little more time before their semifinal bouts. Once they eventually make their way down from the bleachers and warm up, after the announcer over the loudspeaker instructs everyone to clear the mats, Rulon gathers them in the holding area and offers some last-minute reminders. He tells them to be smart and in control, and that they should wear their opponents down and tire them out since they’re both better conditioned. Then they both win and advance.

The finals are a spectacle. The arena staff rolls up six mats, leaving two in the center of the gym, one for the 5A championships and one for 6A. (Herriman competes in 6A, the classification for the biggest schools in the state.) They dim the lights and extend the lower level of the bleachers, with extra rows of yellow seats now closer to the action. When the new section opens to spectators, there’s a mad scramble to race down the stairs and claim the best seats. Rad, like many coaches, has put on a tie. Rulon is wearing the same short-sleeved, button-down shirt from the speech in New Jersey.

As they play the national anthem, Rulon stands in the athlete warmup area, along with other coaches who have kids in the finals. He is looking almost straight up at the flag, at attention. He closes his eyes and puts a hand over his heart. He says that hearing the anthem play, especially in a gym full of wrestlers, always takes him back to that moment atop the podium in Sydney—with Rulon on the top step, and the Russian Bear, incredibly, below.

As each finals match starts, an announcer over the loudspeaker introduces both wrestlers, along with their hometowns, season records, past accomplishments on the mat, parents’ names and GPAs. For many high school wrestlers, this will be the pinnacle of their athletic careers, and the moment is treated with that gravity.

Rulon, in his life, has collected medals upon medals, each one from high school through college saved in Ziploc bags in his home to prove it. Now, standing in the dark, he watches the kids under the spotlight trying to earn their own.

Finally, it’s time. Rulon and Rad follow Talmage out to the mat. The two coaches are animated as their wrestler gets on the scoreboard first, both coaches standing throughout the match. He briefly loses his lead, then pulls back ahead and coasts through the final period to a state championship. He runs to Rad first and gives him a big hug. Here comes Traycee, running in to compete on the same mat. Rulon gives his incoming wrestler a high-five, then high-fives his state champ and match No. 2 immediately begins.

This match ends as abruptly as it begins. In the second period, Traycee connects on a headlock and sends his opponent to his back. The arena explodes as the referee slaps the mat to signal a pin, and Rulon claps excitedly. Herriman High has back-to-back state champs. Their contingent leaves the mat and the two teammates save their most excited celebration for each other. They share a big hug and run into the tunnel, into the basement level of the arena, to go celebrate.

Rulon doesn’t follow. This is their moment, and he wants to let them have it. They don’t need him there.

After the finals, the arena lights come on and the whole Herriman cheering section swarms the group on the floor. Tournament organizers hold medal ceremonies, one weight class at a time, with wrestlers posing atop the podium with their new hardware. Back down from the podium, Herriman’s state champions pose in every combination for their own photos, iPhone camera rolls filling up with teammates, parents, siblings and coaches in various groupings. In one photo, egged on by the people around him, Rulon grabs both state champs in playful headlocks, one under each arm. They all smile as he pulls them in tight. “I can pick them both up if you want,” he jokes about his more than 400 pounds combined of state champion wrestlers.

Both lightweights who qualified for States credit Rulon for helping them with the mental aspect of the sport. The two heavier weights point first to the technique they learned from him. Traycee was a heavyweight last season, before cutting down to 220 this year. He didn't even start wrestling until his freshman year of high school and became a state champ his senior year. He drew a direct line between what Rulon taught him about good positioning and how he was able to throw his opponent in the finals. “That's all because of Rulon, right there,” he said. “I had better positioning than that guy did.”

“It's amazing,” Talmage said. “He's a legend in the sport. Knowing that he's the guy that's in the practice room every day that I get to learn from ... it's an amazing experience to have him in my corner.”

Rulon and his assistant coaches address the team. He points to some of the younger members of the team and tells them they’re the future. He pulls a few aside individually and talks to them about being the ones wearing medals next year. It’s the last official day of the season, but Rulon says now the work really starts.

***

The day after the tournament is a Friday—February 14 to be exact—the 18th anniversary of Rulon’s night on the mountain that cost him his toe. Rulon is sentimental. He gives the impression that he’d recall the date even if Valentine’s Day weren’t an easy one to remember. In that episode of The Biggest Loser where Rulon went bungee jumping, he blew away Bob Harper by telling him shortly before his jump that it was the anniversary of his plane crash into Lake Powell. He jumped anyway.

Rulon can’t outrun his past, nor does he seem to want to. At one point during the conversation about The Biggest Loser, he whips out his phone and calls Moses Kinikini, a fellow contestant on that season. “Sports Illustrated is here!” he tells him. Rulon calls Moses brother, though he calls a lot of people brother. “You’re the coolest,” Moses tells him, as they both delight in the excuse to catch up and reminisce about their time on the show.

Rulon wears many hats and maintains several revenue streams, but from the “Got Milk?” posters at his speaking engagements to the business cards with his Olympic photo on them, part of his appeal is still simply being Rulon Gardner. And he seems fine with the arrangement.

Gardner’s life in the public eye has been a twisting journey of highs and lows. I asked him what advice he would give to somebody at a low point right now—a surprisingly apt question less than a month before the initial surge of a pandemic that would kill more than 200,000 Americans and send many more to unemployment amid a devastated economy.

Gardner's goal is to get near the weight at which he competed. 

Gardner's goal is to get near the weight at which he competed. 

“You can say I’m stupid or I’m stubborn because I think anything is possible,” he said. “Keep going. Keep pushing.” Though he concedes he needs to follow his own advice. “I’m at a low point now. Myself, right now, my biggest thing is my weight. I don’t feel good about it. I’m not happy about it. The one person that can change it is me.”

Rulon still looks to his old buddy Dremiel Byers for inspiration. The background on his phone is a picture of Byers, still in his singlet, right after Rulon beat him at the U.S. trials for his spot on the 2004 Olympic team. That’s his daily motivation. To get back to that weight.

He hopes now that the high school season is over, he can refocus on himself. He won’t have as many days where he works from 8 a.m. until after-school practice and then gets home at 9 p.m. without having worked out himself. His boss at the insurance company has even told him he can carve out time during the day to work out if that’s what he needs. Everyone just wants Rulon to be healthy.

“You see people that do amazing things,” Rulon said, “and they sit back and they think that they’re just gonna keep succeeding because of that.” But he knows it’s not always that easy. “Today I’m not the person I want to be—the person I should be,” he continues. “I need to stop saying it and start doing it. If I turn my mind on and do it, I'll do it. But I can't do it 50%. I make a lot of excuses for myself. And that's wrong.”

He offers one last sobering thought on his size: “I realize, in the next 10 years, if I don’t change, I won’t be here. That’s the stark reality. I gotta make some changes.”

The sun is starting to set. It’s about that time, Rulon says. He doesn’t expect to sleep much tonight. He has a tradition every year on the anniversary where he watches the time pass and reflects on what he was doing, hour-by-hour, on that fateful night.

“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” he says. “Even though it was one of the things that almost killed me, it was truly amazing. Because the human body and the human mind can overcome anything.”

He thinks about his journey the past 20 years.

“That’s why I work so hard right now, to try to regain my name. Regain my work ethic. The success I had in wrestling, which I learned on the farm, now I use it in the insurance business and in the wrestling community. I try to use it to inspire and get kids motivated to come out for wrestling for us.”

When he looks back with 20 years of hindsight on the match that first made him a household name, he draws inspiration from Karelin. Rulon says one of the images that stands out from that day was in the final second of the match, when both wrestlers knew it was over. “To see him put his head down and feel loss … [I felt] happiness, but also sorrow,” Rulon says. “It lets us all know that we’re not untouchable.”

A few months later, Rulon shared that he’s been doing well. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down life for so many in the country, Rulon has kept moving. He’s picked up yet another job, as an ambassador and spokesman for an app that helps promote workplace safety for construction sites and other heavy industry jobs. (He notes the irony, again, of him being a spokesman for safety.) He finally stepped on a scale, which more or less confirmed what he thought—he was in the neighborhood of his starting weight on The Biggest Loser, but still won’t give up a specific number. But he’s been working with a new trainer and says he’s dropped almost 40 pounds since late last winter when the high school wrestling season ended.

The work continues for the former heavyweight champion of the world. Getting healthy and keeping the weight down. Earning back all the goodwill his initial rise to fame afforded him. Making sure the next 20 years have a lot more ups than downs. It may not always be easy, but Rulon has no plans to quit.

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