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Doug Robinson: Rulon Gardner grapples in same old trap

Published: Monday, Jan. 3 2011 10:48 p.m. MST

Everybody wants it, but nobody can handle it.

It's as addicting and destructive as narcotics.

It lures its victims with promises that are ultimately illusory and unfulfilled.

It often comes at the cost of friends and family.

Fame and fortune – who would wish that on anyone?

It ensnared Tigers Woods and Brett Favre. It entrapped Bernie Madoff, Michael Vick, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. None is immune, not movie stars, athletes, singers, politicians or Wall Street types.

I think about this frequently because I often chronicle the lives of the rich and famous. I thought about this again when I saw Rulon Gardner on TV the other night. He's appearing on the "Biggest Loser" reality show in which people compete to lose weight.

Gardner, you remember, won the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in the heavyweight division of Greco-Roman wrestling by defeating the unbeaten, legendary Russian, Alexander Karelin. America ate up Gardner's story. It was a slice of Americana — a farm kid beating the beast from America's cold war enemy, Russia, while his wife and family cheered in the stands in their cowboy hats.

It was the best thing that ever happened to him – and the worst.

There's a bit of luck where fame and fortune strike. Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson, two vastly more accomplished wrestlers, went home with gold medals and went to work. Gardner The Giant Killer lived off his fame.

He became a "motivational speaker." He became rich. He traveled constantly. He lived on the road and in the fast lane. Everything came his way – game shows, talk shows, speeches, appearances, endorsements, business opportunities — and he dived into it like a starving man at a buffet.

It took its toll. He's had four marriages – three of them since winning the gold medal. After surviving accidents with snowmobiles, automobiles and motorcycles, Gardner made it a clean sweep of transportation disasters by surviving a plane crash in Lake Powell in 2007. Now he has eaten himself into morbid obesity. He weighs 474 pounds, up from his wrestling weight of 264.

He seems to find a way to milk each setback for more money and fame, and so he has done it again. The Olympic's biggest winner tried out for "Biggest Loser" and got the job.

Nine minutes on the mat with Karelin has provided Gardner with a lifetime pass down easy street. He has time on his hands. He can sleep late, travel where he wants, do what he wants, buy what he wants, and, apparently, eat what he wants.

Before his Olympic victory, he was living off the $9,000 a year from his wrestling stipend, plus his wife's teaching salary. He planned to be a P.E. teacher. Then fame and fortune made him golden.

When I visited him in 2007, he was living in a spacious mountainside home above Bountiful that included a 14-foot TV screen and a sauna/steam room. The garage was filled with a Hummer, a vintage Mustang, an Audi and a Harley, with a new pickup on the driveway and a boat and a Jeep parked elsewhere.

"When we first went to Sydney, we had no idea what was ahead of us," his father Reed told me that year. "He spent nine minutes on the mat with that ugly man from Russia. I spent 50 to 60 years on the farm, and I don't have nothin'."

Reed is a retired farmer who milked cows twice a day for 50 years. He is salt of the earth. He and his wife Virginia raised eight children, seven of whom became teachers, nurses, housewives, businessmen, doctors and farmers.

"Rulon lives a different lifestyle than the rest of us," Reed said. "One thing I tell him is that he ought to get a real job and get up in the morning."

Reed continued. "He's not the same kid he used to be, and I wouldn't expect him to be. Being a celebrity would change anybody."

Gardner seemed to have come to the same realization by then. After discussing his marriages, he told me, "People dream of something, but be careful what you dream for After I won, it changed everything."

He said he was happy, but he seemed restless and uncertain. He said he wasn't lonely, but he searched an Mormon Internet dating site while we talked. He said he saw no end to the victory lap he was taking through life.

"I'll never get a real job," he said. "I don't think it will ever dry out."

I have quoted this once previously, but it seems especially relevant again as a warning for those intoxicated by fame and adulation. The late James E. Faust, a member of the Mormon Church's First Presidency at the time, once warned one of the church's new General Authorities, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, about how kindly and warmly he would be treated by people because of his position in the church.

"Be thankful for this," Faust said, "but don't you ever inhale it."

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