* * *
IOWA CITY — For a dozen years now, Rulon Gardner has alternately served as exemplar of the American dream and subject of a cautionary tale.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate has displayed what can be achieved with tenacity, toughness and talent. But the wrestler's life also has reflected the risk that comes with success.
Gardner's dream of returning to the Summer Olympics to compete for a third wrestling medal collapsed beneath him at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials here this weekend. The 40-year-old Greco-Roman wrestler failed to get down to 264.5 pounds, the ceiling for participation in the heaviest weight class.
When a guy beats the odds time and again, the odds usually catch up with him. The hard truth for Gardner is that once an athlete has gained gold, he still must descend to the challenge of everyday life.
Speaking rapidly and with enthusiasm, Gardner acknowledged Saturday evening in a press conference that not making weight was "a little setback" and somewhat of a failure.
He said he gave up the effort to cut 5 more pounds Friday when he realized "it doesn't do me any good to get carried out of there dead. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Is it worth it?' "
Gardner said he is back to a good weight "and I have my health back, and that's what matters."
He wore a USA Wrestling warm-up jacket and jeans. His wife, Kamie, sat at the side of the meeting room as he spoke.
Gardner has been one of the most recognizable — if not the most recognizable — of the nation's amateur wrestlers. The fact that about 75 reporters and photographers attended his 25-minute press conference indicated he remains newsworthy.
Steve Fraser, the U.S. head coach of Greco-Roman wrestling, told reporters at the press conference: "Let me tell you, this guy trained harder than any guy on our team."
In an interview earlier in the day, Fraser said he had hoped Gardner would have the weight off by December, then compete in tourneys in the winter.
"But he couldn't do that for some reason," Fraser said. "I knew it was going to be a very difficult thing for him to do, being as heavy as he was."
Fraser said Gardner probably weighed 70 pounds over the limit last August. During the past five months, though, Gardner moved well and wrestled "like a machine," Fraser said.
It wasn't that the hard work wasn't there, the coach said, but Gardner would burn vast quantities of calories and ingest vast quantities. "We've had lots of discussions, lots of people helping him," Fraser said.
Heavyweights here Saturday said they knew Gardner had been working at getting ready for competition. Gardner "was in good condition," said Nikola Bogojevic, a Greco-Roman heavyweight from Superior, Wis.
But being in good condition and getting down to the necessary weight are two different goals.
"He had plenty of time" to make weight, said Bogojevic, 20. "He's been gone so long. I think he just kind of forgot the feeling of cutting weight."
He added: "He's a great guy. It's a shame."
Losing a great deal of weight at Gardner's age has to be difficult, said Toby Erickson, 20, of East Helena, Mont. "He was definitely looking smaller. But he's still looking big."
Before the announcement of Gardner's failure was made Friday afternoon, Momir Petkovic, a Greco-Roman coach with the U.S. team, said that if Gardner achieved the goal weight it would be "typical" Gardner, because he has done "some unbelievable, impossible things."
Gardner won Olympic gold in a massive upset in 2000 by knocking off the Russian legend Alexander Karelin. Gardner cemented his status the following year by winning the title in the World Championships.
The next year he had one of his near-death experiences, getting lost on a snowmobile in the Rockies near Afton, Wyo., where he grew up. He almost froze to death in a below-zero night and was rescued the next day. Doctors amputated one of his toes because his foot had frozen.
He returned to the Olympics in 2004 and won a bronze medal. He survived a motorcycle crash that year and a plane crash into Lake Powell in Utah three years later.
He introduced himself to a broader audience about a year-and-a-half ago while on the TV weight-loss show "The Biggest Loser." His weight had ballooned to the 470s.
Gardner family members typically are large, but their Olympic champion had grown morbidly obese.
On the program, Gardner played the role of an aloof celebrity. He either quit the program or was forced to leave. Either way, he has said he hated the experience and claimed the producers wouldn't let him win.
He also credited the show with helping him get his weight back under control. He lost close to 200 pounds and started thinking about shooting for the Olympics again.
In interviews last June in Logan, Utah, where he runs a fitness club, Gardner suggested that a hardscrabble past had propelled him to athletic greatness.
"Day One, people told me I couldn't do a lot of things," he told The World-Herald then. "And I got used to proving people wrong."
He was a special ed student in his school district in western Wyoming. He said kids sometimes made fun of him because he was pudgy and somewhat slow. In high school he wrestled in Converse basketball shoes, and kids at other schools snickered, said one of his coaches back then, Ed Bruce. Bruce said he bought Gardner his first pair of wrestling shoes.
Gardner said he "didn't have a whole lot of fun growing up," the youngest of nine kids on a tough farm in the mountainous Star Valley. He said his siblings still abide by a pecking order, so he's inclined to remain in the background around them.
"Do I love my family? Yeah," he said last year. "Would I do anything for them? Yeah."
He said he developed mental toughness that enabled him to beat terrific wrestlers.
When he defeated Karelin, he said, he thought of those who had doubted him or laughed at him. He thought to himself: "You said I'd make nothing of my life, and look what I've done." He said he shot a hand in the air — a hand that indicated he was "throwing all the crap people ever said to me" back at them.
In his 2005 book, "Never Stop Pushing," he wrote of winning his gold medal: "I was blind to the fact that my life was going to change." He described going on the Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell TV shows, the farm kid now a star.
After the 2002 snowmobile debacle, he said in an interview last year, he vowed to "live every day like it's your last day. ... So I freaking pounded the daylight out of food." And he gained lots and lots of weight.
He said he knew some people took pleasure in his departure from "The Biggest Loser."
"When successful people struggle, people like it," he said last June. But the show taught him much about calorie intake, he said, and made him a healthy man once again.
Coach Petkovic said Friday that he knew Gardner had had a tough life and was often "pushed aside."
Petkovic referred to the visibility Gardner brought to Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States when speculation started Friday that he wasn't going to make weight. "If he's not," Petkovic said, "too bad for all of us."
Steve Fraser said in the interview that he couldn't be angry with Gardner. Fraser said having Gardner at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado the past few months helped the other wrestlers. He pushed them to be better, served as a leader.
"Rulon Gardner has won two Olympic medals for us and a world championship for us," Fraser said. "He's done more than anyone's ever done for our sport" of Greco-Roman wrestling.
Gardner said he still wants to be involved in the American wrestling program, including Olympic preparations. "I hope we put the best team out there and we go kick the Russians' butts."
Gardner carried the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, Fraser recalled. "So he's a special guy, a special individual," Fraser said. "I don't look at it as 'He should be embarrassed.' He gave it his all."
Gardner might be a commentator for television coverage of the London Games, Fraser said. He's a fine motivational speaker and can continue doing that, the coach said. And there's talk that he might become a professional wrestler, which Fraser noted is entertainment and not wrestling.
But Gardner can't let that weight shoot up again, Fraser said.
Those who love Gardner, Fraser said, just want him to be healthy.
Contact the writer: