I just want these kids to walk out of here and go, 'Man, wrestling was one of the coolest things I ever did, but I’m such a better person for it.' —Rulon Gardner
HERRIMAN — Rulon Gardner, the Olympic hero, death-defying motivational speaker and new Herriman High wrestling coach, had just wrapped up a short workout with some teenage wrestlers on Wednesday when the conversation veered toward, of course, dummy bags and his participation in “The Biggest Loser” weight-loss reality TV show.
“We need some throwing dummies in here and some mats to throw, teach kids that,” Gardner said while sweat dripped off his forehead in the Herriman wrestling room. “Even when on The Biggest Loser, I was out doing back handsprings on the show, throwing dummies on the mat.”
That, he proudly recalls, caught the attention of the show’s spunky, demanding and hard-nosed trainer, Jillian Michaels. He reminded her that throwing heavy objects is what he trained to do for years.
“That’s not possible,” Michaels told him, assuming that a morbidly obese guy shouldn't be able to move like that.
His response — the same one that helped him shockingly beat the unbeatable Russian wrestling legend, Aleksandr Karelin, for the gold medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics and further prove himself as the world champion in 2001, the same one that helped him survive a scary snowmobile and frost-bite incident and an airplane crash that required him to swim an hour in frigid water and sleep overnight without shelter — simply highlights his nothing-is-impossible attitude.
Not possible, Jillian?
“Oh yeah,” he told her. “It is.”
With that kind of attitude — and résumé — it’s easy to understand why Herriman hired Gardner to build its wrestling program. He throws dummies around, but he certainly is no dummy.
Gardner moved back to Salt Lake City and became an insurance agent — health, home, life, and auto — not too long ago after selling medical devices for three years. The 47-year-old, who grew up working hard on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyoming, has also been an active motivational speaker since his rise to the top of the Greco-Roman wrestling world 18 years ago. Those near-death experiences — losing a toe from frostbite after getting lost while snowmobiling and falling into the bitter-cold Salt River in 2002 and then surviving a plane crash with friends in Lake Powell in 2007 — have given him even more inspiring material to share in his speeches.
During this past wrestling season, the father of a Herriman wrestler suggested that Gardner come out and teach the Mustangs some proper technique. When the head coach position opened up, he decided to give coaching a shot. Gardner had been contemplating how to help out Utah youth, and this position gives him just that. Having a legendary USA Wrestling coach — Steve Fraser, who was in his corner when he won his gold — as a reference didn’t hurt his cause.
Gardner spoke to a group of his new wrestlers and their parents at the high school before their quick workout session Wednesday. He’ll get more time with Herriman wrestlers from June 6-9 when he hosts one of his many camps this summer.
“I’m excited to hear I got the job,” he said, “and now to be able to do this.”
Herriman is going through a rebuilding process after losing five seniors from its third-place team last year behind Layton and champion Pleasant Grove (the team he wants to emulate). Gardner hopes to entice football players to try out wrestling and to get younger kids excited about joining the squad.
The immediate goal: "Be respectable."
The long-term goal: "The top."
“Hopefully we can put the team together and start building,” Gardner said. “Pleasant Grove’s loaded, so there’s a lot of work ahead of us. One takedown at a time, huh? Every kid can be beat.”
On a personal note, Gardner is hoping this new experience will help him get his health back on track. Currently tipping the scales at just over 400 pounds, his trainers having him doing a keto diet — lots of protein and fat while limiting carbs — with a goal of getting back down to his wrestling weight. He wants to be able to get on the mat and have the energy, endurance and mobility required for a hands-on coaching approach.
“I’ve got nine out of 10 toes. I’m not unhappy,” Gardner said about his health. “The doctor told me, ‘You should just be dead,’ so every day that the sun comes up is a miracle. I’m just happy to still be on this earth at this point.”
Ninth-grade wrestler Talmage Carman ended practice by learning how to properly throw a heavy dummy over his shoulder. With peers watching, Carman had to continue to throw the dummy at various heights — not an easy task — until his new coach was satisfied with the result.
“It’s a cool experience just having someone with that much experience to help me go where I want to go,” Carman said. “If I want to get to college, I know that guy can lead me into college. It’s cool to have someone in the room like that that can teach me.”
Carman’s grandpa gave the 14-year-old a history lesson about why Gardner was considered so cool outside of the high school wrestling room, too. The teen wasn’t even born when Gardner won his gold in 2000. Gardner gave a motivational speech before the wrestling session, showing his new wrestlers his gold medals and telling him his harrowing and inspiring stories.
“It was a big, big deal I heard,” Carman said. “He has shoes. He has clothing. I knew who he was, but when I saw him in front of my eyes, I kind of didn’t believe it at first, but I was like, ‘That’s Rulon Gardner!’”
The media continues to be fascinated by the sports hero. Along with stories from local media, Gardner has done recent interviews with the Olympic Channel and the Weather Channel. Gardner laughed recalling his TWC interviewer who told him there are six ways to die from frostbite and the wrestling legend suffered from all six during his snowmobile scare. Gardner was told, “That’s unheard of.”
He laughed, knowing how people thought he was crazy to keep wrestling after suffering frostbite. (He won the Olympic bronze medal two years later at the risk of losing toes.)
“That’s why I kept wrestling — I’m too dumb to realize I can’t win so I keep wrestling until I ultimately succeed,” he said. “I’m pretty dang stubborn.”
Gardner's wrestlers have discovered that.
He has an eye for detail and proper execution. In this session, he ran the athletes through some grueling two-minute drills in which partners exhaustingly took turns aggressively putting a move on — shooting at their legs — to take each other down to the mat. He wanted them to focus on being as sharp at the end of that time period, which is how long each of the three rounds lasts, as they were at the beginning. He wants them to be in control every second and not overly emotional, to remain in proper position, to set up opponents for the "right shot" and to not just settle or take any shot. The best wrestlers "turn it into a machine" through a process of observation, learning to deal with circumstances, focusing and being methodical.
Gardner loves speaking at schools — and he's done a lot of that throughout the country — but he really looks forward to working individually to help each of his wrestlers become the best version of themselves even if they don't become The Next Cael Sanderson.
"I just want these kids to walk out of here and go, 'Man, wrestling was one of the coolest things I ever did, but I’m such a better person for it,'" Gardner said. "You have situations where wrestlers get in trouble sometimes. (Like,) What are you thinking?' It’s all about controlling your emotions, controlling who you are and being that person."
Gardner's reward on this spring night — months before his team can even begin official practices — happened when sweat-drenched, exhausted-looking teenage boys after working hard came up to him, shook his hand and said, "Thank you."
The new coach liked what he saw, even if it reconfirmed that he's got a long way to go to accomplish his vision.
"The kids gave good effort on the mat. They were seeing stuff by end of the short practice," Gardner said. "Here we go. Now we’re starting to get some motion. Tomorrow we’ll have to probably start over again, but eventually, they’re going to get this."