Rulon Gardner reflects on his life's challenges 20 years after stunning Olympic win
By KENT BABB | The Washington Post | Published: July 20, 2020
Twenty years ago at the Sydney Olympics, Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Russian super heavyweight Aleksandr Karelin hadn't lost an international match in 13 years, and Gardner beat him to win the gold medal. Gardner, then a chubby 29-year-old who had grown up on a Wyoming dairy farm, became a household name almost immediately.
In the two decades since, he has struggled to settle into post-icon life, both professionally and personally. He survived frostbite after a snowmobiling accident, and later motorcycle and airplane crashes. His weight has been as high as 500 pounds, and he now sells insurance and coaches high school wrestling in Utah.
A documentary about his unpredictable life — "Rulon Gardner Won't Die" — premieres July 21 on the Olympic Channel. Now 48, Gardner recently spoke with The Washington Post; the interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Twenty years after Sydney, what do you take away from the moment the official's whistle blew?
A: I look at my life in two different phases: the 29 years that I just struggled and battled to get myself to what I thought was a good wrestling level, then the Olympics and my life after that. Just the amazing opportunities and experiences and meeting so many great, amazing people, and then the dip and now with my life in the insurance business — great highs and great lows. But that moment is kind of set in stone. People have told me over the years they'll always remember where we were at when we watched it.
Q: We as sports fans tend to remember and even cherish these moments in time. But they also make it so easy to forget that you're a person with a three-dimensional life. What do you think about people who boil your entire life down to a nine-minute wrestling match?
A: I'll walk through an airport, and the funniest thing is to listen to what people say about you as you pass beyond them. Most people are like, "Oh, my gosh, I remember him!" To hear all those kind of comments is fun, but I go back home to Wyoming and people are like, "Why are you here?" Well, I grew up in a house right there, and they're like: "What? You're just a normal person?" I didn't really have any aspirations of winning the Olympics, but I always had a philosophy: You walk out there and give your absolute best and do everything you can.
Q: You were a 2,000-to-1 underdog against Karelin. Did you actually think you could beat him?
A: Not a chance in the world. But you fight like you believe you can win, and you never know. Sometimes crazy stuff happens. I was walking out there saying, "Well, I'm at least guaranteed a silver medal." I know some people would probably say they're good with that, but that was the last thing I was going to do. I walked out there being like: "You know what? All those people who told me I could never get here and get on this stage, I'm going to show them." I surprised myself probably more than them.
Q: The documentary seems to be as much about overnight fame, along with its aftereffects, as your road to Olympic gold. It also touches on some possible addiction issues — to celebrity and certainly food. How is your health these days?
A: I'm down to — I'm ashamed to say — I'm down to 450. There is kind of an addiction habit for my family, and one of my things growing up on the farm as a young kid, we learned bad habits: eating at 10 o'clock at night when we got in from doing all the chores. I was eating a huge meal right before bed.
After the '04 Olympics and I retired, I put a little bit of weight on, then all of a sudden I got caught up in these financial problems. I got to a point where everything was so bleak. It has been a long path back to realize that, yeah, I thought I was invincible and nothing could hurt me. But if I don't live a healthy life, if I'm not smart about who I am and my nutrition, I'm not going to be on this Earth for a long time. The last few months I've really taken a look at it, and I'm not proud of what I've become.
Q: What are you doing to get healthier?
A: My number one goal right now is to get in shape. I've already done two workouts this morning, and I have two more this afternoon and then some training at nighttime. My coaching job, I almost didn't get hired because they were concerned about whether I'd be able to handle it because I was so overweight. As for my diet, I crave sugar. I have a sugar addiction. I'm 100% addicted to sugar, and I have to stay off it to get my health back.
Q: What are the best and worst parts of the weeks and months that followed the 2000 Olympics?
A: The best parts were going home and talking to some of the friends growing up who were astonished and said: "Man, I made fun of you because you were overweight or you had this learning disability, and I'm so sorry for that. Can you forgive me?" I've traveled the world, been to 44 countries. The downside, you'd be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork and try to manipulate you. I lost millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme, and it's sad to see yourself get taken advantage of.
Q: In the film, you discuss that financial distress and even selling your Olympic ring and some other memorabilia — but never your gold medal. How close did you actually come to selling it?
A: I've been offered money for it, right around a million dollars. And when I was on "The Biggest Loser," my wife was at home trying to run our gym; I talked to a friend of mine who told me if you need anything, she needed to call him. So we put up the gold medal as collateral. But would I ever really think about selling it? No, but at the end of the day, it's just an item. Is it that big a deal? Yeah, it's cool, but it doesn't determine who I am as a person.
Q: You haven't just beaten the odds on the mat. You've also cheated death at least three times. Have you thought about just staying inside and keeping the doors locked?
A: You're put in these situations you don't expect. It's not that I'm trying to push death. There's just so many challenges, I think, that I've been through that maybe most people haven't. But for me, every day is kind of a setback, and I really have to push myself in all those situations really just to keep the balance neutral, because my life seems to always go to the extremes. Now I'm actually in insurance, and that's about mitigating risk. I've changed a lot of my behaviors because of that. I realized I need to start being safer and, I think, appreciate life.
Q: What do you think people misunderstand most about your life, especially the two decades since your gold medal win?
A: In the documentary, I want people to see: "Wow, he's just not this wrestler and that's all he is. He's been through so many things, and who knew his life is just like mine?" There are a lot of people who have a pretty easy life, but there's a lot of us that every day is a battle for food or for income, especially right now. "How am I going to pay the bills?" Those are things we're all concerned with.
My family, we were milking cows outside at 50 below zero. Those are the hardships that I grew up with. I'm used to that. So for me to have an easy, cushy life, I don't think that's going to happen. You could say, "Look at what you were in 2000, 2004; this is the peak of your life." Yeah, it was a great moment, but now you look at it and it's like: "Rulon, you're living through that memory 20 years ago. Where are you at today?"
Q: When you won Olympic gold, you celebrated with a cartwheel. When was the last time you did a cartwheel, and do you think you'll ever do one again?
A: I've got to get my wrist stronger. I dislocated it right before the Olympic trials in 2004, so it feels sensitive even though it's been 16 years. It will never be right. Last time I did a cartwheel was probably about 2005 or '06. Do I ever believe I'll do one? Yes, a hundred percent.