Will Rulon reign again?
COLORADO SPRINGS – In a room full of some of America’s toughest athletes – the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team – Rulon Gardner is a clown. He struts happily across the mat, carrying on a serious conversation with a visitor but never losing his frisky focus.As he passes a teammate he glances at him and says with a grin and a wink, “Hey good lookin’!” The teammate shakes his head and laughs.A moment later Rulon is playfully tugging at the legs of head Greco coach Steve Fraser while Fraser grapples with another wrestler. Fraser grunts back at his big galoot, something like, “Leave me alone – not now.” Rulon looks up and smiles at those watching. He has gotten the rise he was looking for.What you would never know, if you didn’t already, is that this soft-bellied joker is the defending Olympic gold medalist in Greco’s heavyweight division, arguably the toughest of them all.By now his story is well documented. And to be sure, it’s more accurately a legend.Growing up on a farm in tiny Afton, Wyo., an hour outside Jackson Hole, Rulon milked cows and hucked hay bales as a kid. He was the youngest of nine children. Pudgy throughout his life (he was better known as “Fatso” growing up), Rulon slowly grew into his skin. By the time he graduated from Star Valley High School, he was an all-state football player and the class 3A heavyweight wrestling state champion. Even today, though, the extra girth remains. Were Rulon not a recognizable face, you’d have a hard time believing who he is – the orchestrator of the most world-shaking Olympic upset since that group of miraculous puckheads dealt the Soviet Union the crushing Cold War blow in 1980.To win the gold medal that he will defend in Athens – the birthplace of Greco-Roman wrestling – later this month, Rulon had to beat Russia’s Aleksander Karelin, the reigning Olympic champion who had won every match he’d ever entered in international competition. In 13 years, Karelin had gone 63-0 and had been the only heavyweight to win the Olympic gold medal since the 1984 Los Angeles games. He hadn’t even been scored upon in 10 years.
Then Rulon beat Karelin, 1-0 in overtime, and quickly became the face of the Sydney Olympics. He changed the course of the ancient sport’s sexiest (not literally, of course) division, and sent the Russians home fully embarrassed once again.”The whole wrestling world was devastated, but especially the Russians,” says Fraser, whose 1984 gold medal in the 198-pound division was the first Greco medal ever won by a U.S. wrestler. “To be beaten by an American … are you kidding me? That was a shocker for them and a hard blow to take.”Should Rulon reign again (his first Athens match is Aug. 24), it won’t be nearly as much of a surprise. Still, because of a tumultuous timeline of wacky events that have taken place since he won gold, it would be improbable in its own right.For starters, Rulon is missing a toe. He had it amputated in 2002 after a snowmobiling accident left him soaking wet, unsheltered in the Wyoming backcountry overnight, dealing with temperatures well below zero. He then crashed his motorcycle (he rides a Harley Davidson Road King) head-on into a car in March of this year, but narrowly escaped serious injury despite not wearing a helmet. Three days after that he dislocated his wrist playing pickup basketball. Rulon’s final injury forced him to wrestle hurt at the national championships, where he lost to Dremiel Byers, thus giving up the crucial No. 1 seed for the Olympic Trials. (Yes, even defending gold medalists have to qualify for the games.)When it counted most, though, Rulon was Rulon. He beat Byers – a tattooed, 277-pound Army staff sergeant who was the 2002 world champion – in two straight trials matches to earn his berth in Athens. What sets him apartOn paper it is Rulon’s small-town, farm-boy background that lures. But to those who know him best, it is his unique ability to live with abandon while never missing a beat.
The farm where he lived growing up was a quarter-mile from National Forest land, and he and his siblings became quite at home in the outdoors. Today, living in Cascade outside Colorado Springs, he often makes the trip to snowmobile at Vail Pass and in the Fairplay area, and he drives his Dodge Viper and rides his Road King to his huge heart’s delight, at high speeds.”Some people say I have a death wish,” he says. “I don’t think I have a death wish. The good Lord’s given me a chance to live, and I wanna go live my life to the fullest.”Fraser understands his heavyweight’s need for excitement, and doesn’t try to stand in the way.”You stifle him here,” says the coach, “you stifle him period.”Nobody’s stifling anything when it comes to Rulon’s eating habits. With a starving rhinoceros’ appetite, he amazes those who watch him feast. “Oh man, you should see it,” says Byers, an imposing giant himself. “I can’t eat like him.”Proof of this phenomenon exists in Afton on the wall of Rulon’s Burger Barn, a main attraction within the Gardner Country Village general store, which Rulon’s older brother Russell owns. There you can take the Rulon Challenge: Consume a 1 1/2-pound burger, fries and a soda, as fast as you can. Do it in less than 25 minutes, and you get a free T-shirt and your name and picture on the wall. Until two weeks ago, Rulon’s was the only name on the wall. He did it in eight minutes.Gentle giant, until…
As big as he is in person – 6-foot-2, 275 pounds – Rulon’s as soft as they come when you get him off the mat. Well known for his love of children, he is a popular guest speaker at schools around Colorado and he always has a moment for those in need.”He’s there for the people,” says Russell, six years Rulon’s elder. “He’ll be late for his next appointment if there’s someone waiting for an autograph.”It’s here that his farm-boy roots are most evident. He is polite almost to a fault, opening doors for whomever he’s with, boy or girl. Yet all of it ends once Rulon gets on the mat to wrestle. Says Fraser, “Something clicks, and he goes into a different mode. He’s as intense as they get.”This is how he beat Karelin. This is why he has more respect in the wrestling world than anyone else. He refuses to go down, relying oftentimes on sheer will, and triumphing because of it.In Athens, if Rulon is to win, he’ll have to overcome Karelin’s yet-to-be-named successor – ironically, Karelin’s first loss was his final match – as well as a number of other contenders. Most notable among them will be Cuban Mijian Lopez, who has beaten Rulon more often than he’s lost to him in the last two years.A funny thing happens when you ask Team USA about Rulon’s chances. None of them, not Fraser, Byers or even Rulon himself, considers Rulon the favorite. Yet both Fraser and Byers both say they’d bet on the reigning champ. “Absolutely,” says Fraser.It makes sense. Rulon Gardner doesn’t fit the mold of a guy who’s supposed to win. Heroes never do.Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at email@example.com.