Former Olympic champion Rulon Gardner starting anew after life of fame

By Ryan McDonald

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, June 7 2014 1:00 p.m. MDT

Anthony Wood, facing camera, and Jacob Mondragon practice during a wrestling camp in Draper, Friday, June 6, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

On the surface, life appears rather simple for former Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner.

The wrestling champion wakes up each morning and hits the road to work as a medical device rep for a company called DePuy Mitek. On the weekends he often helps coach youth wrestling camps around the country, like the one that concluded Saturday at Corner Canyon High in Draper.

Yes, he’s busy, but the 42-year-old is quite removed from the celebrity lifestyle he led for years after defeating Russian Aleksandr Karelin for the gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games. After pulling off one of the biggest upsets in wrestling history, fame and fortune followed Gardner.

So too did tragedy and failure.

There was getting lost in the mountains in the winter of 2002, which led to one of his toes being amputated. Five years later, a light aircraft he was in crashed at Lake Powell. He’s been divorced multiple times.

The final straw came in 2012 when he filed for bankruptcy, compelling him and his wife Kamie to essentially start over. The couple relocated from Utah to Fort Collins, Colorado.

“It goes from being Olympic gold medalist and great and wonderful to pretty humbling and feeling down and out again and making you wonder what the balance of life is,” he said this week at Corner Canyon High, where he joined 1988 Olympian Ken Chertow and Corner Canyon coach Jeff Eure in teaching youngsters on the mat.

“We’ve had to refocus and we’re starting over," Gardner said. "It’s been really humbling. You learn from it and you move on.”

Part of that moving on includes traveling around the Intermountain West to visit with doctors in hopes of convincing them that his company’s products are the ones that should be used to help patients recover from injuries.

“It’s good to go out and learn a new trade and get a new job and have different responsibilities,” he said. “As an Olympic wrestler you have your coaches and everybody else, but now seeing the real world and finding the challenge in the real world, it’s been pretty interesting. I’ve done OK. I’m not the best salesperson at what I do, but it’s a job that I’m learning how to get better at every day.”

One battle Gardner continues to fight is with his weight. He topped out at 474 pounds in 2011 before appearing on “The Biggest Loser” television show. He ultimately dropped just short of the 264 1/2-pound mark needed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials, but has since gained about 100 pounds back.

Wrestling may serve as motivation to lose that weight.

“I almost feel like it’s my heartbeat to live,” he said of wrestling. “It gave me the opportunity to live the life that I have lived. Being so distant from it, it’s hard. For me, I want to get back into it. If it’s a perfect world, I’d like to be on the 2016 Olympic team if everything works out.”

Gardner realizes he’ll be 45 years old by the time the 2016 Summer Games roll around, but he’s seen others make a run at it in their mid-40s and wants to give it a go.

Even if that bid fails, however, the sport Gardner has given much of his life to is still a bright spot in a life that has seen dark times.

“This is what I love to do. I love to work with kids and teach and hang out and cause trouble,” he said, a smile forming across his face. “This is what’s fun. Sometimes these kids have no idea what you’re gonna show them and then all the sudden you start showing them this technique and it blows their mind. I just love that passion to see in a kid’s eye question and then the next minute you see them understand.”

While Gardner aims to help youngsters understand how to succeed on the wrestling mat, he also is trying to help them learn lessons he’s learned through his experiences, lessons he’s trying to live out in his own life.

“I see my future being better than just winning the Olympics,” he said. “Everybody calls it the pinnacle moment. You know what? Every day in life we have pinnacle moments. I’m gonna find the best in every situation.”

Ryan McDonald is a part-time reporter, visual editor and scoreboarder at the Deseret News.

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