At 474 pounds, Gardner fighting for survival again
When Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner retired after the Athens Games, he decided to give his body a break. Let all those nagging injuries heal and, for the first time in years, not worry about his weight.
Six months, the wrestler thought. Maybe a year.
But that year became two. Then four. Then six. By the time he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame last summer, Gardner had gained so much weight he couldn’t fit into his old tuxedo. And when he turned on the television later that night to watch coverage of the induction ceremony, some fast food in front of him, he had a horrifying realization.
“They have a clip of me, and I did not recognize the person in the TV footage,” Gardner said Friday. “Everything finally came through. I realized that my health was starting to become an issue. That was the day I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Holy cow. I’m so physically unhealthy, so obese. It’s time to make a change.”‘
Ten years after becoming a national icon of sorts by snapping Alexander Karelin’s 13-year winning streak and claiming the Greco-Roman gold at the Sydney Olympics, Gardner is trying to become “The Biggest Loser.” At 474 pounds in the first weigh-in for NBC’s hit reality show, Gardner was 209 pounds heavier than when he left his shoes on the mat in Athens.
“(If I fail), ultimately people will think, ‘You aren’t as strong as you used to be.’ That’s a fear. And that fear is something that drives me to get up and do the extra workouts that other people won’t do,” Gardner said Friday of why he was willing to make his weight-loss battle so public.
At 39, Gardner has had the kind of improbable life of which folk heroes are made. The youngest of 10 children, he grew up on a Wyoming dairy farm and built up his strength by throwing hay bales. After beating Karelin, arguably one of wrestling’s biggest upsets, he survived a night in the wilderness in 2002 when temperatures dropped to 25 below zero, ultimately losing only one toe to frostbite.
Before the Athens Games, he was on his way to practice when his motorcycle was hit by a car. He walked away with some cuts and scrapes, and went on to win the bronze medal. Then, in 2007, he escaped death once more when the plane he and two friends were in crashed into an icy cold lake. The three swam to shore and, with no shelter, huddled together overnight before being rescued the next morning.
“Honestly, since the 2002 frostbite and the plane wreck, there was a point where I didn’t care if I died (because) I’ve lived life to fullest,” Gardner said.
That carefree attitude is part of what makes Gardner so endearing. But it also endangered his life yet again.
After retiring, he stopped working out and paying attention to what he ate. He’d spent years meticulously monitoring his body to make his weight class, and figured he was due a break from the scales and the numbers.
“I think losing control and gaining the weight was almost a way to step away from wrestling and say, ‘I’m completely done,” he said.
Yet he continued to eat like he did when he was an elite athlete, often consuming two meals of up to 3,000 calories in one day and finishing his day with chips or chocolate.
Gardner knew he was packing on the pounds, and people occasionally would say something about how big he was getting. But he was busy. He traveled the country giving motivational speeches, and he and friend Justin Pope opened the Rulon Gardner Elite Training Center in Logan, Utah.
“For me, it was too easy to make excuses not to have to work out,” Gardner said.
Even the hope of starting a family with wife, Kamie, wasn’t enough to inspire him to change.
“My doctor said, ‘Rulon, point blank, the obesity you have on you is going to make it that much harder. … Long term, you may not be able to have kids because of that,”‘ Gardner said.
But after seeing that TV footage of himself last summer, Gardner realized if he didn’t take drastic action now, he likely would die a young man. Though he could easily have worked with a trainer at his health club, he chose a much more public arena, asking USA Wrestling for a contact at NBC so he could be part of “The Biggest Loser.”
Pope, his business partner, agreed to be Gardner’s teammate on the show. Also a former wrestler (he beat Gardner when they were eighth-graders), Pope began the show at 365 pounds.
The two won the show’s first challenge, combining to finish a 5K ahead of the other 10 teams. Although some think Gardner has an advantage because he’s a former athlete, he cautioned that it creates some unique challenges, as well. There is still plenty of muscle in his body, and he’ll have to find a way to lose weight without losing that.
Then there is the sheer amount of weight he’s trying to lose. At just 6-foot-1, Gardner was already big when he was competing, and he’ll need to lose 200 pounds just to reach that.
“That first workout we had was so physical and so exhausting and so brutal,” Gardner said. “I was trying to make my body run and sprint and move like I used to when I was 280 or 260 pounds. It didn’t move the same way.”
Gardner can’t say how much weight he’s lost so far, nor does he talk about how much he wants to lose. Just as he did in Sydney, he’s set his sights as high as they can go.
“I want to be alive until I’m 100 years old,” he said. “That’s my goal.”