DES MOINES, Iowa — In less than two years, former Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner has nearly dropped the 200 pounds he put on during his gluttonous retirement from wrestling.
If Gardner wants to keep his slim shot at the London Olympics alive, he's got at least 25 more pounds to lose in just 15 days.
The deadline for Gardner's unlikely and somewhat mysterious comeback as a Greco-Roman heavyweight is April 20. That's when the 40-year-old Gardner — known lately for his stint on NBC's "The Biggest Loser" — must weigh no more than 264.5 pounds to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City, Iowa.
Gardner told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday that he's "close to 290" pounds, which is slightly above his goal with two weeks to go.
For Gardner, cutting the fat has always been more about getting his life back on track than reviving a once-dominant wrestling career.
"I have an opportunity to go back and start my life over again," he said. "Say I do or I don't make the team this year. My life is going to reset itself in a few weeks and I'll be able to start the journey all over again."
The trials are the latest destination point in the fascinating life of Gardner, the famous heavyweight who later gained celebrity by becoming overweight.
Gardner rose to fame at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 by stunning Russian Alexander Karelin, who'd been unbeaten for 13 years. A year later, Gardner won the world title, wiping away any notion that the win over Karelin was a fluke.
Gardner's also had a flair for drama in his personal life, nearly dying after a night stranded in the Wyoming wilderness following a snowmobile accident in 2002. He also shrugged it off when a car hit his motorcycle before the Athens Games in 2004, where he won bronze and called it quits by leaving his wrestling shoes on the mat.
He spent his time giving motivational speeches around the country and opened a training center in Logan, Utah. There was a terrifying plane crash in 2007 and, perhaps even scarier, a slow, steady weight gain caused by bad eating habits and lackadaisical conditioning.
By the summer of 2010, Gardner decided to make a change — and a very public one — when he signed onto compete on "The Biggest Loser" at a whopping 474 pounds. He abruptly left the show last April having slimmed down to 289 pounds. Though the weight loss from the show was somewhat deceptive because much of it was muscle mass, it motivated Gardner into thinking he could make one final wrestling comeback.
Gardner's path to Iowa City started last summer in Utah and has continued under wraps at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has competed just once since returning, winning all four matches as a heavyweight at an event in Colorado Springs in late January.
"I wish I would have had four or five tournaments under my belt and felt the different emotions of wrestling different guys," Gardner said. "There's no comparison to competition. You can't tell yourself truly where you're at unless you compete in competition."
That competition figures to be steep.
The favorite for the Greco-Roman heavyweight spot is three-time world medalist Dremiel Byers, who has established himself as America's best in that class after Gardner stepped away. Gardner certainly won't concede the spot to Byers, a friend and a rival. But he's chosen to look at his journey to Iowa City and possibly even London from a philosophical perspective.
"Wrestling is just an extension of who I am," he said. "But overall, I think I'm trying to make new life choices. I'm trying to make better choices, and for me this is kind of a rebirth. If I make the Olympic team? Great. If not, look at myself after eight years and ballooning up almost 200 pounds and getting on 'The Biggest Loser.' You know what? I get my life back again, and that's what truly mattered to me."
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