Rulon Gardner’s highs, lows since Olympic wrestling gold tracked in film

Rulon Gardner
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Rulon Gardner is living a quiet life, just the way he likes it.

He is 48 now, sells insurance and has a second job coaching wrestling at a Salt Lake City-area high school.

It’s been 20 years since Gardner, a 2,000-to-1 underdog, beat three-time gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin in the Greco Roman heavyweight final at the Sydney Games in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

His story didn’t end there. Not by a long shot.

“My life,” he said in an interview, “has been a roller coaster.”

Winning gold was the start of a ride that began with the farm boy from Wyoming becoming an instant celebrity.

Just as he was easing back into his old life, he was the talk of the nation again when a harrowing snowmobiling outing left him with frostbite so severe it cost him a toe and all feeling in his feet. From there followed a motorcycle accident, an improbable comeback to take bronze in 2004, a plane crash, weighing in topless at 474 pounds on “The Biggest Loser” reality show and losing millions after getting taken in a real estate scam.

All that and more are chronicled in “RULON,” a documentary coming soon on the Olympic Channel.

Adam Irving, the director, said he was 18 at the time of the 2000 Olympics and unfamiliar with Gardner’s story until he was approached about making the film.

“I had to look up ‘Rulon Gardner,’” Irving said. “Within 10 seconds of reading his Wikipedia page, I knew that it would be hard to mess up the film because his life story has so many dramatic moments you couldn’t make that stuff up.”

Karelin is compared to fictional superhuman Russian boxer Ivan Drago from “Rocky IV.” Before meeting Gardner, the wrestler known as the “Russian Bear” won 887 of 888 matches and had not surrendered a point in six years or been beaten in 14. His patented move was the the terrifying reverse body lift in which he would throw his opponent feet first over his head.

Gardner had never finished higher than fifth in an international competition and struggled to get past his semifinal opponent in Sydney. The media portrayed the gold-medal match as a coronation for Karelin as he headed into retirement.

“When I walked out there, yeah, I was nervous,” Gardner said two decades later. “Did I believe in myself? Yeah. Did I think I could beat him? No. Did I have a chance? 100 percent.”

The film captures the rapture of Gardner beating the world’s greatest wrestler, but this isn’t just an underdog story. Improbable Olympic glory defines Gardner, but so do the near-death experiences and other unfortunate events that come his way.

Gardner is the narrator, with comments from his former coach and journalists who covered his story. Some of the archived video, particularly footage of the treatment for his frostbite, had never been shown before.

The opening shots have Gardner carrying a calf and knocking around a friend’s dairy farm near Logan, Utah. Gardner’s family no longer has the Wyoming dairy farm where he grew up.

For the youngest of Reed and Virginia Gardner’s nine children, childhood was all about hard work and chores. Among classmates he was an object of ridicule for being overweight and having a learning disability that put him at a fifth-grade reading level when he graduated from high school. He had a contentious relationship with his dad. His mother was a buffer between the two and an enduring source of love and support.

Wrestling provided escape from the grind of farm life, yet he didn’t make his high school’s varsity team until his senior year. He left the University of Nebraska with a hard-earned degree in physical education and began competing internationally in 1996.

The “Miracle on the Mat” turned him into an American hero. He made the rounds on the talk-show circuit, rubbed elbows with A-listers and amassed large sums of money thanks to endorsement deals.

Bad luck and bad decision-making ensued, never more than in 2002 when he got separated from his snowmobiling party in the Wyoming wilderness. He rode aimlessly as darkness fell, ended up in a shallow river and trudged through snow to a stand of trees. Wet and with no blankets or food, he spent the night in sub-zero temperatures. Searchers found him the next morning.

Perhaps his lowest point came when he filed for bankruptcy in 2012. A deal to develop a hot springs went bad and Gardner was stuck owing almost $3 million. He had to sell his gold and bronze medals, which he has since recouped, and auctioned off other memorabilia.

Not addressed in the documentary were Gardner’s Mormon faith and his four failed marriages.

“Those are kind of private,” Gardner said. “There are some things you don’t bring up.”

His lifelong battle with his weight was not off limits. In fact, it’s an underlying theme, and a scene of him in his kitchen talking to his tiny dog is particularly moving. He wouldn’t disclose his weight during a recent interview, but the math indicates he’s over 400.

He said he’s lost 30 pounds in the last month, thanks to working with a coach and cutting refined sugars and processed food from his diet. He has said his goal is to get back close to his wrestling weight of 265.

“I have well over 150 pounds more to lose,” he said.

Gardner sold medical equipment before joining an insurance agency in Payson, Utah, two years ago. About the same time he was hired as head wrestling coach at Herriman (Utah) High School.

It strikes him a bit funny, after all he’s gone through, that he’s happily settled into an insurance career.

“It’s all about mitigating risk, making better choices,” he said. “People ask me, ‘What do you know about safety?’ I’m like, ‘Let me tell you some stories.’”

MORE: Olympic wrestlers tie for gold medal, 8 years after the competition

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IOC gives more time to pick 2030 Olympic host, studies rotating Winter Games

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The 2030 Winter Olympic host, expected to be Salt Lake City or Sapporo, Japan, is no longer targeted to be decided before next fall, the IOC said in announcing wider discussions into the future of the Winter Games, including the possibility of rotating the Games within a pool of hosts.

The IOC Future Host Commission was granted more time to study factors, including climate change, that could impact which cities and regions host future Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The 2030 Winter Games host is not expected to be decided before or at an IOC session next September or October.

Hosts have traditionally been chosen by IOC members vote seven years before the Games, though recent reforms allow flexibility on the process and timeline. For example, the 2024 and 2028 Games were awarded to Paris and Los Angeles in a historic double award in 2017. The 2032 Summer Games were awarded to Brisbane last year without a traditional bid race.

Italy hosts the 2026 Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

There are three interested parties for the 2030 Winter Olympics, the IOC said Tuesday without naming them. Previously, Salt Lake City, Sapporo and Vancouver were confirmed as bids. Then in October, the British Columbia government said it would not support a Vancouver bid, a major setback, though organizers did not say that decision ended the bid. All three cities are attractive as past Winter Games hosts with existing venues.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials have said Salt Lake City is a likelier candidate for 2034 than 2030, but could step in for 2030 if asked.

The future host commission outlined proposals for future Winter Olympics, which included rotating hosts within a pool of cities or regions and a requirement that hosts have an average minimum temperature below freezing (32 degrees) for snow competition venues at the time of the Games over a 10-year period.

The IOC Executive Board gave the commission more time to study the proposals and other factors impacting winter sports.

The IOC board also discussed and will continue to explore a potential double awarding of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympic hosts.

Also Tuesday, the IOC board said that Afghanistan participation in the 2024 Olympics will depend on making progress in safe access to sports for women and young girls in the country.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch urged the IOC to suspend Afghanistan until women and girls can play sport in the country.

In a press release, the IOC board expressed “serious concern and strongly condemned the latest restrictions imposed by the Afghan authorities on women and young girls in Afghanistan, which prevent them from practicing sport in the country.” It urged Afghanistan authorities to “take immediate action at the highest level to reverse such restrictions and ensure safe access to sport for women and young girls.”

The IOC board also announced that North Korea’s National Olympic Committee will be reinstated when its suspension is up at the end of the year.

In September 2021, the IOC banned the North Korean NOC through the end of 2022, including banning a North Korean delegation from participating in the Beijing Winter Games, after it chose not to participate in the Tokyo Games.

North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was the only one of 206 National Olympic Committees to withdraw from Tokyo. The country made its choice in late March 2021, citing a desire “to protect our athletes from the global health crisis caused by the malicious virus infection.”

The IOC said in September 2021 that it “provided reassurances for the holding of safe Games and offered constructive proposals to find an appropriate and tailor-made solution until the very last minute (including the provision of vaccines), which were systematically rejected by the PRK NOC.”

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Olympic champion Justine Dufour-Lapointe leaves moguls for another skiing discipline

Justine Dufour-Lapointe
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Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the 2014 Olympic moguls champion, is leaving the event to compete in freeriding, a non-Olympic skiing discipline.

“After three Olympic cycles and 12 years on the World Cup circuit, I felt that I needed to find a new source of motivation and had to push my limits even more so I can reach my full potential as a skier,” the 28-year-old Montreal native said in a social media video, according to a translation from French. “Today, I am starting a new chapter in my career. … I want to perfect myself in another discipline. I want to connect with the mountain differently. Above all, I want to get out of my comfort zone in a way I’ve never done before.”

Dufour-Lapointe said she will compete on the Freeride World Tour, a series of judged competitions described as:

There‘s a start gate at the summit and a finish gate at the bottom. That’s it. Best run down wins. It truly is that simple. Think skiers and snowboarders choosing impossible-looking lines through cornices and cliff-faces and nasty couloirs. Think progressive: big jumps, mach-speed turns and full-on attack. Think entertaining.

Dufour-Lapointe has retired from moguls skiing, according to a Freeride World Tour press release, though she did not explicitly say that in social media posts Tuesday.

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Dufour-Lapointe denied American Hannah Kearney‘s bid to become the first freestyle skier to repeat as Olympic champion. Older sister Chloé took silver in a Canadian one-two.

Dufour-Lapointe also won the world title in 2015, then Olympic silver in 2018 behind Frenchwoman Perrine Laffont.

Chloé announced her retirement in September. A third Dufour-Lapointe Olympic moguls skier, Maxime, retired in 2018.

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