Ex-Olympic wrestler now helps inspire others

After ascending to Olympic glory 13 years ago, Rulon Gardner never considered what he would do for a second act.

“For me, it was never about my encore,” the former Olympic wrestling gold medalist said Saturday. “It was coming out to prove that people were wrong (about me).”

Following some well-publicized off-the-mat accidents and near-falls, Gardner has seemingly found a niche as a motivational speaker.

He visited Hoquiam during the past three days, staging a mini-clinic and handing out awards at Saturday’s Grizzly Alumni Invitational wrestling tournament and speaking Monday at a Hoquiam High School assembly.

The co-owner of a gym in Logan, Utah, Gardner spends much of his time on the road. He flew from Hoquiam to Afghanistan, where he was scheduled to visit with U.S. Army troops stationed there this week.

The 41-year-old Gardner, however, has a particular affinity for junior high and high school students. Having grown up on a dairy farm in ruval Wyoming, he can relate to youngsters from smaller communities.

“The impact that I hopefully can make on these kids will be life-changing,” he related. “If I can do it, you can do it, that’s my goal.”

“Your town is small; mine was smaller,” he told high school and middle students at Monday’s assembly. “We didn’t have a stop light. We didn’t have a McDonald’s.

“The reason I did athletics,” he later observed, “was I hated that damn farm.”

Gardner’s life has already inspired an autobiography (Never Stop Pushing: My life from a Wyoming Farm to the Olympic Medals Stand) and very easily could become the subject of a movie.

Afflicted with learning disabilities that restricted him to reading at a fifth-grade level as a high school senior, he not only graduated from high school but the University of Nebraska.

The personable, moon-faced Gardner first attracted nationwide attention when he recorded a stunning victory in men’s Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, Australia. The American heavyweight defeated Russia’s Aleksandr Karelin, who hadn’t lost a match in 13 years, in the gold medal contest.

Gardner admits that he retains few unaided memories of that match. He said, in fact, that he didn’t fully realize he had won the gold medal until about halfway through the national anthem being played during the medals ceremony.

“Actually, I remember not much,” he said. “I see it on video and that’s great. When you’re a competitor, you’re so focused on the match, you don’t remember anything, because you’re so focused on beating him.”

Gardner followed up that accomplishment by winning the 2001 world championship — becoming the first American wrestler to earn both an Olympic gold medal and a world title — and took a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, but his life following the Sydney games were also filled with adversity.

He survived snowmobiling and motorcycle accidents (losing a toe to frostbite in the former incident) and a plane crash.

Having ballooned to more than 450 pounds, he was a contestant on the reality television program, “The Biggest Loser,” in 2011. He dropped from 474 pounds (he said he drank 25 pounds of fluid prior to the weigh-in to reach that weight) to 289 before leaving the program for what he termed personal reasons.

He said an emergency call from his wife prompted that decision.

“There was a lot going on and she really needed my help,” Gardner said Saturday.

He said he currently weighs 325 pounds.

Although an attempt to make the Olympic team last year fell short, Gardner appears happy with his current life. In Hoquiam, he displayed an easy rapport with kids, even taking time to help Grizzly Alumni Association tournament competitors with their moves between rounds on Saturday.

His assembly presentation covered seven steps to success. Those steps include going back to basics, enlisting friends to help in decision-making and refusing to rest on one’s laurels.

Gardner’s underlying message, however, is to not accept mediocrity.

“So many people told me that I couldn’t (succeed) that it made me stronger,” he said at the assembly Monday.

He is hopeful that his own experiences can provide inspiration for others.

“The odds of me beating (Karelin) were 1,000 to 1, but the opportunity was there,” Gardner told the students. “Go home and look in the mirror. At the end of the day, the only person who is going to help you realize your potential is yourself.”