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Wrestler Rulon Gardner fighting for Olympic bid after losing 160 pounds

By Jay Kernis and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Gold medal winner Rulon Gardner has survived two Olympics, a plane wreck, a broken neck and nearly dying in the Wyoming wilderness. Now, he’s facing what he describes as one of the biggest challenges in his wrestling career and life: his own weight.

“I have about 45 pounds I need to lose in about 70 days,” Gardner told Harry Smith in an interview set to air Wednesday, Mar. 21 on Rock Center with Brian Williams.

The 40-year-old gold and bronze medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling is attempting to make it to the Olympics in London this July.  After ballooning to 474 pounds, he’s lost at least 160  pounds, but still needs to lose more to be in fighting shape.

“In the sport of wrestling, I know where I stand.  I know what I’m capable of and I know I can win.  So for me, I don’t think I’m ever going to lose wrestling again, because when I let that sport go that gave me my life, I lost a lot of who I was,” Gardner said.

He was last in the public eye after gaining more than 200 pounds since the Athens Games and appearing on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”  He was the first contestant to ever quit the NBC reality TV series. He left the show and decided that  he wanted one more shot at the Olympics.

“I thought, you know, what do I want?  Do I want to just be competitive? Do I want to just be skinny and do I want to get down to 220 pounds and win the show? Or do I want to get my life back? And I thought, you know what, where’s the one place in my life that gave me me and that’s in wrestling,” Gardner said.

Gardner had a storied wrestling career.  When he won the gold medal in Sydney in 2000, no one expected him to defeat three-time gold  medal  winner Alexander Karelin, known as ‘The Russian Bear.’  Karelin hadn’t lost a match in 13 years.  Gardner had wrestled Karelin several times and lost. One time, Karelin even left him with a broken neck.  When Gardner overcame the Russian, his gold medal win was dubbed ‘The Miracle on the Mat.’

“I was nervous.  I was a little scared,” Gardner said.  “But I had this big, strong, powerful belief in myself.”

After his Olympic win, he felt invulnerable until a 2002 snowmobile incident in the Wyoming woods.  He was lost in freezing snow and river waters for 18 hours. Of his near death experience, Gardner said that he had one goal: to make it to sunrise.

“At about 4:30 in the morning, I had a vision.  I saw Jesus. I got to see God and I got to see my brother, Ronald, who passed away and they came to me in the vision and they said, ‘Rulon, let’s go.  It’s time to come home’...and I’m like going, I’m not ready to die now.  I got too much to live for,” Gardner said. 

After being rescued, doctors saved his frostbitten feet, but had to remove one toe on his right foot.

He returned to wrestling and won a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics.  He famously left his shoes on the wrestling mat after his victory, a gesture to indicate he was retiring.

“I took my shoes off, placed them on the mat and basically said farewell to the sport of wrestling,” Gardner said.  “I think kind of a perfect ending to my career.”

Gardner told Smith that when he quit the sport, he stopped his disciplined workouts.  His weight grew and grew.  He opened a gym after retiring, but never used it.

“It was looking probably death in the face as almost as much as being stranded all night in the wilderness, you know,” Gardner said.

After concerns from his wife, Kamie, and his cardiologist sister, he decided to audition for "The Biggest Loser."

Gardner said the show began the transformation that’s led him back to wrestling. Gardner’s first big hurdle to making the Olympics will come in late April.  To qualify for the Olympic team, he  not only has to make weight, he has to beat his old friend and practice partner Dremiel Byers,  the Army sergeant now considered the country's top heavyweight.

When asked about his drive to press forward with his Olympic bid, Gardner said, “I’m a man again. I’m back to who I was.  I want to show the world that age is only a barrier, weight is only a barrier,” Gardner said.

Editor’s Note: Harry Smith’s full report, ‘The Heavyweight,’ airs Wednesday, Mar. 21 at 10 pm/9c on Rock Center with Brian Williams.