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Feet First After a snowmobile mishap left him ravaged by frostbite and cost him a toe, Olympic heavyweight Rulon Gardner is taking his comeback one step at a time

June 03, 2002
June 03, 2002

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June 3, 2002

Feet First After a snowmobile mishap left him ravaged by frostbite and cost him a toe, Olympic heavyweight Rulon Gardner is taking his comeback one step at a time

Despite the fresh snow on the side of the road and the cold wind
whipping through the cab, Rulon Gardner has removed the doors of
the Jeep Wrangler. What the hay, it's May 23--springtime in
Afton, Wyo. "Summer around here means two weeks of bad skiing,"
says Gardner, the 286-pound Greco-Roman wrestler who became
America's favorite dairy farmer at the 2000 Olympics by beating
the legendary Russian bear, three-time gold medalist Alexander
Karelin.

This is an article from the June 3, 2002 issue Original Layout

Gardner's pumping the clutch and gas with ravaged, swollen feet
that are heavily bandaged. He's wearing orthopedic sandals, and
two-inch pins are sticking out of both of his big toes to
prevent them from bending. The middle toe on his right foot is
sitting this one out, suspended in formaldehyde in a plastic
vial back at his parents' house, awaiting Gardner's next
opportunity to thrust it on an unsuspecting visitor after
asking, "Want to see my toe?"

Gardner jams the Jeep into four-wheel drive and turns up the
sodden dirt access road that leads from Route 89 into the Salt
River Range. The treads of his tires are soon covered with two
inches of goo. A 200-foot drop-off lurks on the right side of
the road, a four-foot ditch on the left, and traction is nil.
Yet Gardner, 30, blissfully fishtails ahead, clods of mud flying
into the freezing cab. He takes his eyes off the treacherous
incline to point out Wagner Mountain, 10,745 feet high, a
snow-covered landmark that nearly cost him his life.

"The gully I got stuck in is just over that ridge," he says,
pointing to a steep, tree-covered draw. He retraces his
nightmarish route down the mountain with his thick index finger.
"I never had the time to explore this country when I was a kid.
Too many chores at the farm. Now I never miss an opportunity to
get up into the mountains. I'd snowmobile every day if I could."

Gardner smiles and steps on the gas, the Jeep sliding perilously
close to the edge. "I never had toys before, and now that I have
them, I'm going to use them," he shouts over the engine's whine,
alluding to the snowmobile and truck he bought with his
post-Olympic endorsement earnings. "Next winter I'm going to
lead a snowmobile party to the top of Wagner Mountain. I
consider it unfinished business. Go nuts, live life, have fun.
That's the way I'll always live. You're only here once. They
don't give you a do-over."

But some people, the lucky ones, get a second chance. Gardner is
one of those, having survived a 17-hour ordeal in February
during which he was stranded overnight in subzero temperatures
in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Gardner's near-death experience started innocently enough, as a
Valentine's Day snowmobile excursion with two friends, Danny
Schwab, 36, and Trent Simkins, 20. The trio started up
Cottonwood Canyon about 1 p.m. with the vague idea to make it to
the top of Wagner Mountain and back. Schwab, the most
experienced snowmobiler of the three and the only one carrying a
survival pack, turned back around 3:30 p.m. to go to his
daughter's basketball game. About half an hour later, after the
other two got separated, Simkins also turned back.

Gardner was still hoping to reach the top, but the mountain was
too steep, so he tried to find Simkins. Around 4:30 p.m. Gardner
rode into a gully that was too steep and narrow to turn around
in, so there was literally no turning back. He wasn't
particularly concerned when the gully led him to the headwaters
of the Salt River, reasoning that if he followed the widening
riverbed down, it would lead him to familiar terrain. But the
light was fading, and the gully kept getting hairier. At one
point Gardner's snowmobile broke through a snow shelf and fell
some seven feet into the shallow river. A snowmobile weighs
about 650 pounds, and by the time Gardner had pulled his machine
out, he was not only wet to his thighs, he was also drenched in
sweat.

He still thought he could make it back to the valley before
dark. But the reality was, the farther he went, the harder it
would be for his rescuers to catch up. At one point in the
semidarkness he drove his snowmobile off a 50-foot cliff, a
precipice that would stop the 29-member search party in its
tracks later that night. "No one could follow him," says Schwab,
who returned as one of the members of the search-and-rescue
team. "I didn't think anyone could survive that fall. Then we
shone a light down there and saw tracks heading farther down. If
he'd stopped there we'd have had him home by 9 p.m."

But Gardner kept going, abandoning his snowmobile at about 7:15
p.m., in 2 1/2 feet of water. From there he wallowed through
waist-deep snow to a small stand of trees, where he decided it
was futile to continue. He had no blanket, no shovel, no
matches. He undid his left boot and removed one wet sock, but
his fingers were too cold to untie his right one. He leaned
against a tree uncomfortably, knowing if he fell deeply asleep,
he'd probably never awaken.

He spent the night drifting in and out of consciousness as the
temperature dropped to -25[degrees]. He recalls dozing off once
and seeing God on a chair in a white room, with Jesus beneath
him, sitting above Rulon's older brother, Ronald, who died of
aplastic anemia at 14. In the dream Ronald was in his 20s. "It
was comforting, but kind of scary," Gardner says, "because if I
was in that room with them, it meant I was ready to die. So I
started to think of all I had to live for. Wrestling. My family.
Tausha."

His girlfriend, 21-year-old Tausha Simkins, Trent's sister, had
changed the text greeting message on Gardner's cellphone to
read, "Love you, hon." "That was the only thing I could get on
my phone," says Gardner. "I kept thinking, 'This sucks. That's
the last thing I'm ever going to read.' She was a big part of
how I made it through the night."

Gardner had been going out with Tausha, the reigning Miss Rodeo
Wyoming, since January. He'd known her most of her life. "I've
pretty much reached all the goals I've set for myself except to
start a family," Gardner says. "That night on the mountain I was
thinking I might not get that chance."

A search plane spotted him a little before 7 a.m. and circled
for another 2 1/2 hours before a rescue helicopter could reach
him. When he crawled aboard, his core body temperature was 80
degrees, but the only parts of his body that were frostbitten
were his feet. "His toes were frozen back to the balls of his
feet," says Dr. Timothy Thurman, who treated him at the Eastern
Idaho Regional Medical Center. "I thought he'd lose more toes,
and possibly all of them."

For the first two days in the hospital Gardner refused all
painkillers. "When I do something stupid, I want to feel it," he
says.

After his feet thawed, doctors began peeling away the dead
tissue, layer by layer. The right foot that had been encased in
the wet sock was in significantly worse shape than the left one,
and by the time the dead tissue was removed from his right big
toe, the joint was exposed. He remained in the hospital for 10
days, and three weeks after being released, pigskin was applied
to his toes, and he began spending two hours a day in a
hyperbaric oxygen chamber to stimulate blood flow to his feet.
Two weeks later skin from his thigh was grafted to seven of his
toes, and pins were inserted into six of them to keep them from
bending and thus allow the blood vessels to heal. But on March
28 his right middle toe had to be amputated. He also lost part
of the tips of both his big toes.

As the severity of his injuries and the length of the recovery
process became clear, Gardner's ordinarily sunny disposition
grew darker. He'd won the Greco-Roman heavyweight World
Championships in Greece in December, and he had been looking
forward to defending his title in September in Russia, but the
U.S. trials are June 21-23, and as the weeks went by, it became
obvious there was no way he'd be wrestling by then.

"I'd always had wrestling to turn to," he says. "Suddenly, for
this year, it was gone. People deal with their demons in
different ways. I dealt with mine by pushing everyone away."

Gardner broke up with Tausha and asked his family to stop
visiting him at the hospital. "I had to collect my thoughts," he
says. "By myself."

What he learned through the soul-searching is that since the
Olympics he's had to deal with the continual adjustment to his
newfound fame. "I realized that I needed to get rid of the
unimportant things in my life. Wrestling's important. Family's
important. Now I'm pulling things back that are important to me.
I'm building back up little by little."

Two weeks ago he and Tausha got back together. Now Gardner,
who's coming off the mat emotionally, has his eye on property in
the mountains, with a spectacular view of Afton, that he's
hoping to buy in the next couple of years with the money he
makes giving speeches and wrestling clinics around the country.
The family dairy farm is being run by his oldest brother,
Rollin, and Rulon has no intention of settling anywhere else.
"This is home," he says. His great-great-grandfather, Archibald
Gardner, a Mormon polygamist who had size 14 feet, first settled
in Afton in 1889 with his 11th wife, Mary, a big-boned woman
who, in a family photograph taken in 1921, bears a startling
resemblance to a certain Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler.
"Don't she look like me?" Gardner asks proudly.

Every other day he spends more than an hour changing the
bandages on his feet, peeling away the dead skin with tweezers.
After he's bathed them with saline solution, he puts latex
gloves over his size 13 feet so he can shower, the empty latex
fingers flopping in front of his swollen feet like teats from an
udder. "Got milk?" he jokes, a sly reference to his National
Dairy Council ad that ran after the Sydney Olympics.

The last pin, in his right big toe, is scheduled to be removed
this week. Fourteen weeks after his accident, his feet, while
still a long way from being ready for a beauty contest, are
finally beginning to resemble, well, feet. "I'm encouraged,"
says Thurman. "The tendon over his right big toe is pretty much
gone, so that one will always be stiff. But I think December is
a very reasonable timetable for him to be wrestling again. And I
fully expect to be watching him in the 2004 Olympics."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Frozen asset Gardner was fortunate that he lost just a toe--now preserved in formaldehyde--and not his life.COLOR PHOTO: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP Midas touch Gardner struck gold by defeating Karelin and now has his eyes set on the reigning Miss Rodeo Wyoming.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN [See caption above]
"I've pretty much reached all the goals I've set for myself,"
says Gardner, "except to start a family."