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Vision Quest

A near-death experience changed Rulon Gardner physically, emotionally, but his spirit is unbroken

October 25, 2002|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sometime during the cold, snowy night between Feb. 14 and 15, Rulon Gardner had a vision.

He and two friends, Trent Simkins and Danny Schwab, had gone snowmobiling in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, near their home in Afton, Wyo. Schwab turned back about 3:30 p.m. to attend his daughter's basketball game, and he and Gardner got separated. Schwab found his way home but Gardner, unfamiliar with the terrain, drove his snowmobile into a gully and couldn't escape.

Fixated on following the Salt River because he knew it led home to the Star Valley, he plunged into the freezing water, slipped and fell onto his back during a futile attempt to free the snowmobile. Shivering and wet, wearing several light layers on his upper body, gloves and boots but carrying no matches or survival gear, he trudged to the riverbank and propped himself against a tree to wait for help.

Rescuers came within about 200 yards of him, he thinks, about 2 a.m. He slipped in and out of consciousness, too weak to respond.

"I saw my [long-deceased] brother Ronald sitting there with Jesus, and God was there," Gardner said. "I didn't want to be there, so I didn't go there. I just said, 'Uh-uh.' I pulled myself back and withdrew from it. It was like going backward, withdrawing mentally. Your mentality is the key, and I think it was the key that night."

The indomitable will that had enabled him to subdue the supposedly unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin and win the Greco-Roman wrestling heavyweight gold medal at the Sydney Olympics kept him alive through his 17-hour ordeal. It also sustained him through the amputation of the middle toe on his right foot and four other surgeries, among them skin grafts to repair damage done when the temperature plunged to 25 degrees below zero and halted the blood flow to his feet.

"After the accident, I didn't want to take painkillers," he said. "I didn't need to take painkillers because my feet were hurt from my stupidity, and I deserved to feel the pain that they felt."

He is counting on the same resolve to help him meet his next challenge: competing Saturday in Los Angeles for the first time since his accident, knowing he's not the man or the wrestler he once was.

"Quickness, speed, balance, agility, change of direction, lateral movement -- all of them have been affected adversely and hold me back from being the wrestler I used to be," he said. "But they're getting back and improving and becoming the way they used to be. I call it 'used to could.' I used to could do this and that, and I will again."

The physical changes are evident in his ungainly walk and the yellowish skin on his feet. He weighed 290 pounds at Sydney and was at 282 last week on the way to 265, but that's to meet new weight limits. His shoulders are no less broad and his thighs no less powerful than during his marvelous overtime victory at the Olympics.

And his grin is the same, the aw-shucks smile of a kid who took up sports to escape milking cows and doing chores on his family's 160-acre dairy farm and discovered an unexpected talent.

Yet, he has been transformed in ways he's not completely sure of. He will begin to gauge those changes Saturday, when he steps onto the mat at Los Angeles Center Studios to wrestle Billy Pierce in one of 14 matches that will be taped and shopped to TV networks as the pilot of a real wrestling show.

The event is the brainchild of RealPro Wrestling, whose co-founders, former Northwestern University wrestlers Matt Case and Toby Willis, hope to some day start a "real" wrestling league. Who better to launch their effort than Gardner?

"The whole David-and-Goliath story in Sydney was awesome," said Case, a two-time wrestling All-American. "He's a great guy, down to earth, a farm-bred country boy who happens to be a great athlete."

One whose body is no longer whole but whose spirit is unbroken.

"Sure, it's a little scary," Gardner said over lunch at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, plowing through a plate heaped with chicken, ribs, pasta, potatoes and vegetables before attacking a small garden of lettuce on another plate.

"As an athlete at a world-class level, you kind of expect yourself to be competing at the top. I won the Olympic Games and the [2001] world championship. Those are two huge successes. Now to come back and say, 'OK, I went through the accident and now I'm going to be world champion again,' there's got to be a first step, and sometimes, the first step is the scariest step.

"You can do practice matches and everything else, and those have been going absolutely great in the last few weeks, but there's a difference between practice and competition. It's scary, but I have to follow my heart."

His heart tells him to compete. Not necessarily to win another Olympic gold medal, although that's among his objectives. It would be a formidable task, however, because to get there he probably would have to beat out U.S. rival Dremiel Byers, the reigning world champion.

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