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His Biggest Reversal

Olympic gold medalist Gardner is back to his winning form 18 months after nearly losing his life

August 03, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — With no air conditioning available, the heat and humidity inside the Combat Pavilion at Olympic Park was stifling Saturday, sending streams of sweat down the chest and arms of wrestler Rulon Gardner.

And he loved every drop of it.

For one thing, his first day of competition at the XIV Pan American Games was 125 degrees warmer than that disastrous night in Wyoming nearly 18 months ago when he almost lost his life on a snowmobile outing gone wrong.

For another thing, it was a 180-degree turnaround from the early prognosis for Gardner, who was told he would lose both his legs after losing his way in the Wyoming wilderness, leaving him exposed overnight to 25 below temperatures that resulted in severe frostbite.

Wrestling? Don't even think about it, he was told by doctors.

But how can a kid who won an Olympic gold medal in 2000 slam the door so suddenly on his career?

Gardner didn't, even though he had to endure the amputation of the middle toe on his right foot, severe damage to two other toes and four painful surgeries.

"I never lost the dream," said Gardner, who will turn 32 in two weeks. "Wrestling is the one thing in my life that has always been there and never turned its back on me."

Gardner had to walk before he could crawl in a wrestling stance, but after winning 16 of the first 20 matches of his comeback, including a victory in the World Team Trials in March that secured spots in these Pan Am Games and the world championships in France in October, Gardner reached a new high in Saturday's opening round of competition.

He pinned both opponents, Edwin Millet of Puerto Rico in the morning match and Rafael Bareno of Venezuela in the afternoon session.

Gardner had only two previous pins in his entire career.

It seems amazing for a man who figured to have lost his footing, flexibility and confidence when forced to operate with only nine toes.

But Gardner doesn't think of himself that way. Not anymore.

"I forgot about the injury a month ago," he said. "After I had finished wrestling one day, I thought, 'You know what? My feet don't hurt anymore.' "

The nightmarish evening, Valentine's Day, 2002, began when Gardner went snowmobiling with two friends, Danny Schwab and Trent Simkins. Around 4:30 in the afternoon, after Schwab had left, Gardner steered his snowmobile down a ravine in search of Simkins and wound up trying to pull his vehicle out of the Salt River.

"I finally realized I was wasting too much energy," he said. "I knew it was time to leave or I would die out there."

Where to go? When Gardner found himself trying to trudge through snow five feet deep, he finally stopped struggling.

"I tried to stay focused and remain conscious," he said, "because I knew that's the only way I would stay alive."

Gardner knew he was in trouble. Without the benefit of gloves, he managed to pull off his left boot, remove his left sock, which had become little more than icicle, and replace the boot. But his hands were too cold to repeat the procedure on his right foot. That wet sock, encased on his right foot, cost him a toe.

Around 2 a.m., fighting to stay awake, Gardner saw a vision of his brother Ronald, who had died in 1978 at 13 of a form of anemia.

"He looked so peaceful," Gardner said. "It made me at peace."

Gardner was finally rescued at 10 the next morning. It took five people to pull off his right boot and sock. His body temperature was 80 degrees.

"I had to learn to walk again," Gardner said, "and deal with depression. But I was alive and that was all that mattered."

When Gardner decided to try wrestling again, he shocked some people.

"People would come up to me," he said, "look at my feet -- they didn't even look like feet -- shake their heads and say, 'Why? Why would you even want to wrestle again?' And I'd answer, 'Why not?' "

Said teammate Brandon Paulson: "That Rulon made it through doesn't surprise me."

Gardner figures he has made it back to 98% or 99% of what he was before on the mats.

"He may not be at the level he was when he won an Olympic gold medal," said Dan Chandler, Gardner's coach, "but he's pretty close."

But most importantly, said Gardner, "It feels good to have feet."

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