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Rulon Gardner 'lucky to be alive' after surviving plane crash

Just a few seconds after Rulon Gardner's appearance Monday afternoon on the Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio, the veteran sportscaster offered his take on the Olympic champion wrestler.

"There are three things I won't do with Rulon Gardner," Patrick quipped. "I won't get on a plane with him, I won't go snowmobiling with him and I won't get on a motorcycle with him."

Just 48 hours earlier, Gardner had survived his third brush with death in less than five years when he and two other men survived a plane crash on Saturday into Lake Powell near the Utah-Arizona border in southeastern Utah.

Gardner, whose stunning 2000 Olympic finals win over Russia's Alexander Karelin is considered one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, recalled the harrowing incident Monday afternoon while waiting to board a flight out of Salt Lake City on his way to a speaking engagement in Boston.

On Saturday, the 35-year-old Gardner was a passenger in a small Cirrus SR 22 aircraft with pilot Randy Brooks and his brother, Leslie Brooks. They were looking at a houseboat from the air when a wheel of the low-flying plane struck the water.

"The plane went from 150 miles per hour to none in about a second," Gardner told on Monday. "It was just a perfect day and then all of a sudden it was like a nightmare again. I hit my head pretty hard and I think I may have had a concussion.

"I freaked out pretty bad at first, it was pretty scary. I was like, 'This can't be happening to me again and here we go again.' It was another life or death situation. I was like, 'How many times can this stuff keep happening to me?'"

In 2002, Gardner nearly died when he became stranded overnight while snowmobiling in sub-zero temperatures in his native Wyoming. He eventually lost a toe. In 2004, he was riding his motorcycle in Colorado Springs and survived a nasty collision with an automobile.

Randy Brooks told The Salt Lake Tribune there was nothing wrong with the airplane and that he had "screwed up" while flying the aircraft.

After unbuckling his seat belt following the crash on Saturday, Gardner and the Brooks brothers ventured into the 44-degree water and started the long swim toward the shore. Gardner said he spent the next 90 minutes swimming toward the shore.

"When I first hit the water, my head was going under within 10 seconds," said Gardner, a Salt Lake City resident. "I kicked my shoes off and started to do a simple, methodical backstroke across the lake. The beach was a heck of a long ways away, so I had to take it slow and not tire myself out. It was very surreal and scary, but I didn't have a choice. I had to make it."

Gardner, who still travels the country giving motivational speeches and working wrestling camps, finally made it to shore.

"I couldn't feel anything in my arms and hands - everything was numb when I laid down on the shore," he said. "We tried to stand in the sun so our clothes would dry, but it was already 4:30 and the sun went down a short time after that. We all kind of huddled together and tried to stay warm. We tried to stay positive and kept telling each other we were going to make it."

The group of men endured a long night as temperatures dipped into the 20s. Around 8 a.m. Sunday, the men flagged down a fisherman who contacted a park service ranger.

Steve Luckesen, a district manager for National Park Service, told The Salt Lake Tribune the three men were "very, very lucky."

"It takes only 30 minutes for someone swimming in 44-degree water to start suffering severe effects of hypothermia," Luckesen said. "So the fact that they swam in it for a hour, not to mention surviving the plane crash and the night without fire or shelter, is pretty amazing. If these guys were a cat with nine lives, they just used up three of them."

The massive Gardner, a Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler known for his superior level of conditioning when he retired after winning a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics, said Monday afternoon that "everything is fine with me physically."

"I just have one little cut on my index finger," he said. "My arms and shoulders are still sore from swimming two miles, but otherwise I feel fine. I'm very, very lucky."

Known for living life to the fullest, Gardner said he does not take as many risks as he did in earlier years. He has only one test left to receive his pilot's license and said he does plan to still follow through on getting the license.

"I've only ridden my motorcycle three times in the last year," he said. "I got rid of my sports car. I'm not as crazy as I used to be. I'm not taking as many risks.

"This situation wasn't really a case where we were taking a risk. We were just flying along with an experienced pilot, on a perfect day, and just happened to catch the water and had an accident. I'm just glad we're all OK."

Gardner's recent incident drew immediate nationwide attention. In addition to the Dan Patrick Show, Gardner appeared on CNN and did an interview with the New York Times on Monday. He is scheduled to appear on the CBS Early Show on Tuesday morning. Numerous other national media have contacted him since the accident.

He kept repeating the same phrase during interviews on Monday.

"It's great to be alive," he said. "I do feel lucky and I do feel blessed. It's kind of surreal that these things keep happening to me. I definitely don't take anything for granted anymore. Every day is a miracle for me. I feel very blessed. I'm lucky to be alive right now."
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