Gardner swims — for his life

Published: Monday, Feb. 26 2007 12:04 a.m. MST

Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner took up another sport Saturday — but only long enough to save his life.

Gardner and two other men swam for more than an hour in the 44-degree waters of Lake Powell to reach the safety of shore after their small plane crashed into the lake late Saturday afternoon.

The men then survived a night in the wilderness near Good Hope Bay with no fire or shelter — and only the wet clothes on their backs — before catching the attention of a passing fishing boat Sunday morning.

Becki Bronson, spokeswoman for the Garfield County Sheriff's Office, said the 35-year-old Gardner was a passenger in a Cirrus SR22, piloted by Randy Brooks, owner of Barnes Ammunition in American Fork. Brooks' brother, Leslie Brooks, also was a passenger.

Randy Brooks was piloting the plane low to the surface when the aircraft struck the water and went down, Bronson said. The men were uninjured and managed to escape the plane before it sank, she said.

Steve Luckesen, a district ranger for the National Park Service, was one of three medics who treated the men in Bullfrog about 11 a.m. Sunday. He told the Deseret Morning News the three men were very lucky.

"It's miraculous that they are even alive," he said. "The first harmful event was crashing your airplane into the water, and then to be able to get out of the airplane with absolutely no injuries and then swim in 44-degree water for over an hour ... Statistics show that in 40- to 50-degree water, in 30 minutes, hypothermia can cause you to go unconscious.

"These guys were lucky to survive the swim in the water, and then they survived spending the night on the rocky shores. .. They were taking it in stride, like it was another day at work."

Luckesen said all three men had swollen feet as a result of frostbite and Leslie Brooks had some discoloration of his toes.

He said Gardner's left foot was more swollen than his right but said he would recover. Gardner lost a toe on that same foot due to frostbite in 2002 when he spent 17 hours in the Wyoming backcountry after his snowmobile crashed into a hidden lake. Gardner was soaked and then spent the night in the wild with temperatures dropping to minus 25 degrees.

Gardner, who lives in North Salt Lake when he is not traveling the lecture circuit, did not return a call to his cell phone Sunday night. Luckesen said Gardner told him he had a speaking engagement in Boston today and was intent on making it there as scheduled.

The men provided the park ranger with a few details of their ordeal. Luckesen said when the plane touched the water, it then skipped on the surface three times before coming to a rest, upright, in the lake.

As they were swimming toward the distant shore, Luckesen said, the Brooks brothers stayed together but became separated from Gardner.

"For a while, they didn't know where Gardner was, and when they got to the shore, they thought maybe he had drowned," Luckesen said. "Then he came to shore about 100 yards away from them. Rulon was doing the backstroke and taking his time."

Luckesen said much of Lake Powell in that area is bordered by sheer cliffs and the men were fortunate to find a location where they could easily climb out of the water.

Lake Powell is 175 miles long with 1,700 miles of shoreline, much of which is inaccessible by land. Luckesen estimated the men came to shore about 30 miles — across rugged terrain — from the nearest road.

But the men were fortunate again Sunday morning when they were able to flag down a couple of fishermen on a boat.

"They ran down the shoreline .. yelling and waving," Luckesen said.

The fishermen took the three men to Randy Brooks' houseboat in Bullfrog. Brooks then called the Park Service medics, who treated the men at the houseboat, Luckesen said.

The medics urged the men to let them call a medical helicopter for them, but they declined. Instead, Brooks' son-in-law flew his private plane from Las Vegas and then flew the men to American Fork, Luckesen said. He was unsure whether the men received any additional medical treatment once in Utah County.

Luckesen, who called Gardner a "pretty impressive individual," said he understood Gardner was a friend of Leslie Brooks and was interested in perhaps buying the airplane from Randy Brooks. The men apparently were taking a test ride when the crash occurred.

Gardner is no stranger to accidents. He once impaled himself on a hunting arrow, then walked to the hospital. He also survived an accident on his motorcycle in 2004 in which he T-boned a car, did a front somersault and landed on his feet.

Gardner won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, beating previously undefeated Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin. He is also a three-time national champion.

Gardner is originally from Afton, Wyo.


Contributing: Joe Bauman


E-mail: zman@desnews.com

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