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Rulon Gardner is back on the mat, considering comeback in Greco-Roman wrestling

Pete Kowalczuk, Rulon Gardner, Robbie Smith and National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser pose together after training session at the U.S. Olympic Training Center

In August 2004, after winning the second Olympic medal of his historic career in Greco-Roman wrestling, Rulon Gardner left his ASICS wrestling shoes in the center of the wrestling mat in Ano Liossia Olympic Hall in Athens, Greece. He walked away to the cheers of the crowd, retiring from the sport as an athlete. That is a lasting image many have of Rulon Gardner, the wrestler.

“I had committed eight years after my college career to international wrestling. Not knowing the outcome, I felt if I made one or two Olympic teams, my career would be fulfilled and then I would start pursuing my career as a teacher. I was willing to make that commitment. After winning the two Olympic medals, it was a natural transition to move on with my life,” said Gardner.

It is almost seven years later and Rulon’s life has changed considerably. He survived an airplane crash, worked as a public speaker and started a new health club business. He also allowed his health to decline as his weight blew up to over 470 pounds. Admittedly, Gardner struggled in finding the same level of success in daily life as he achieved as a focused Olympic athlete.

“There was not a set schedule. There is not one point where you are successful. In wrestling, you knew when you reached that level. You knew what you placed at the nationals, and what you placed at the World Team Trials. There was not the same accountability. I allowed myself to relax with my health and my weight became an issue. I did not have the structure and accountability in my life,” said Gardner.

It was during his induction ceremonies at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in June 2010 when Gardner realized that he had let things slip too far.

“I realized that I was in severe danger and going down a path where my life could end prematurely,” said Gardner. “It was a choice to listen to people around me. The people in the wrestling community emphasized positive things about changing my life. The wrestlers were honest enough to confront me and say my health was a serious issue. I decided I need to get control of my life again and ask for help to get back on track.”

Since last summer, Gardner has taken major steps to get his life back in order, not only concerning his weight but also in all aspects of his lifestyle. A big part of that journey included becoming a contestant on The Biggest Loser, a popular NBC weight loss show. Although Gardner is no longer on the show, he believes that he is heading in the right direction.

“It is something I learned in wrestling and in growing up. It’s about small steps. Once you get to the Olympic level, it doesn’t come down to who is going to win the match, it is who wins the individual positions. In getting my health back and getting my nutrition corrected, it has been small decisions. It’s 100 calories here, 100 calories there, a workout here. It is about slowing it down, looking at small details and making smarter choices. If you make enough small decisions every day that lets your life move forward, you put yourself in position to succeed in everything,” said Gardner.

For the first time in awhile, Gardner is confidently looking ahead and setting high goals for himself. Now 39 years old, his first priorities are his marriage and his business, and finding joy in life on a daily basis. However, he also has made wrestling a focus in his future.

This past weekend, Gardner returned to the wrestling room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for some Greco-Roman wrestling workouts. He trained with National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser and a number of the U.S. Olympic Training Center resident athletes. He is seriously considering lacing back on the shoes again as an athlete.

“My competitive fire is back. There are different directions I would like to go with it. I am contemplating competing again. I’m back training. I have had an opportunity to go to Colorado Springs, and feel where my physical conditioning is and learn where my physical strength is. My muscle memory will not come back quickly. I know it is a multi-month project. But my body is in the process of coming back. I have personal goals I have set for myself for the next couple of years,” said Gardner.

As Gardner continues to return into wrestling shape, he will gauge his progress and make a decision about where this will lead him. This time around, Gardner says would be wrestling for many other people, including those who have helped him recover from obesity as well as those he has inspired as he regained control of his life.

“With the exposure I have gotten since my weight loss, there are people who have said to me that there’s not one thing I can’t do in this world. They say they want to be part of my life because of the strength I have shown to never give up. I tell them that you only have one chance in life. You succeed and do the best that you can, or you watch life pass you by,” he said.

While working out at the Olympic Training Center, Gardner experienced a variety of thoughts and emotions.

“It feels scary. By winning an Olympic medal the last time you were on the mat, you leave with success. I was completely satisfied with that bronze and with my career. Now that I am back on the mat, I don’t feel like missing the last seven years has even affected me. The coaches that watched me at practice, I know they are excited about the possibility of me helping further the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling. If I don’t make the team, at least I hope to make the team better,” he said.
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