Rulon Gardner, right, grapples with India's Pal Rishi during a 120-kilogram… (Mark Reis / Associated Press )
Wrestler Rulon Gardner is in the familiar position of facing impossible odds.
No one believed the Wyoming farm boy could beat legendary Greco-Roman wrestler Russian Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, yet Gardner won the gold medal in the heavyweight class. Few believed he could come back after a snowmobile accident to compete on the Olympic stage again, yet he returned to win a bronze medal in Athens.
After experiencing a huge weight gain that he couldn’t tackle until he appeared on TV’s “The Biggest Loser,” Gardner is trying for another Olympic comeback at age 40. But his age wasn’t his only obstacle as he prepared for the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials this weekend in Iowa City, Iowa.
Gardner said Thursday in a phone interview that he was about 280 pounds, about 15 over the 264.5-pound weight limit for his division, but he was confident he would sweat the pounds off in time for a Friday weigh-in. He must get under the limit in order to compete for the one U.S. Olympic team berth in his class for the London Games.
“I feel okay, I’m not really hurting too bad yet,” he said.
But he was hurting for a long time, after he let his weight balloon to 474 pounds. “I got down on myself,” he said. He wasn’t working out and he had financial problems just before he was about to open a health club near his home in Logan, Utah.
“When I started out on 'The Biggest Loser,' for me it was kind of embarrassing to be on national TV and go from this wrestling icon, this Olympic gold medalist, to being on 'The Biggest Loser,' ” he said. “Losing the weight was part of my goal of being on 'The Biggest Loser.' Then, getting on the show I started to lose weight and get my weight down to where I felt like I was competitive again.
“And then looking back and thinking, when was I the happiest? When was I truly me? And that was on the wrestling mat.”
He left the show before the season ended to begin his wrestling comeback. First, he had to rebuild the 60 pounds of muscle he lost while he was losing fat, so after working out at home in Logan, he moved to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., last autumn to ramp up his training.
“America’s seen me go from Olympic glory to Biggest Loser. I want to go back to Olympic glory again,” he said. “It’s kind of the American way, rebuilding yourself and remodeling yourself and making yourself more of who you are.”
Gardner’s principal rival for the Olympic spot is Dremiel Byers, a competitor and friend since the late 1990s. In order for Gardner to earn the Olympic spot he will have to win a mini-tournament and then beat Byers in two out of three matches Saturday.
Even if Gardner loses this weekend and doesn’t make the Olympic team, he has won back his self-esteem, and that’s what matters most.
“I got my life back, and that’s something two years ago I didn’t have,” he said. “Being on 'The Biggest Loser,' that’s where my fire turned back on. It was time to go out there and take care of business. The old dog has the scent to hunt again, and for me, this dog wants to run again and go with the big guys. I’m 40 years old and some people say I’m past my prime, but give me a chance….
“I’m a wrestler with nine toes. I’m a wrestler who has been through a lot of battles. I get to do a lot of motivational speaking and people are blown away and say, ‘You never quit. You keep coming back.’ You know what? Life is too short. You can look at what you didn’t accomplish or look at what you can accomplish, and I’m going to go out and accomplish more in my future. I think my best days are ahead of me.”