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Rediff.com  » Sports » Wrestler Gardner takes frostbite in his stride

Wrestler Gardner takes frostbite in his stride

May 10, 2004 12:00 IST
Oprah, David Letterman, CNN, Good Morning America, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and a Wyoming Tourism Board commercial.

Just about the only show wrestler Rulon Gardner did not appear on after winning Olympic gold was 'Survivor'.

If he had done, the outcome would surely have been a foregone conclusion.

The oversized boy who once accidentally punctured his abdomen with an arrow and who tried to walk 40 kms home along a freeway became a man who overcame a snowmobile accident and the loss of a toe to frostbite to return to the mat.

"I've taken a few lumps," the American says.

Gardner beat a learning disability to earn a university degree and embodied the Olympic dream by becoming a champion in Greco-Roman wrestling in Sydney, defeating a man who many had considered invincible, Russian Alexander Karelin.

Beaten in his 130-kg weight class at the United States Nationals competition in April, Gardner now needs to win the U.S. Olympic trials between May 21 and 23 in Indianapolis if he is to make the team for this year's Athens Games.

In the nick of time, a freak accident has come along to make his quest that much tougher.

"I was playing basketball and injured the bones in my right hand," he told Reuters. "It affected me at the Nationals, but I just hope I can get healthy for the trials."

Gardner, born 32 years ago in the small Wyoming town of Afton, is already competing at a physical disadvantage.

FROSTBITTEN TOE

After his snowmobile ran out of control in February 2002, he was left stranded in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius in a Wyoming valley for 18 hours before friends and family helped to rescue him.

Frostbite claimed the middle toe of his right foot. In a sport requiring quick movement and balance, the amputation could have become career-threatening.

But Gardner said: "I have adjusted and it doesn't give me any problems."

"I still have the toe. I keep it in my refrigerator at home...No, honestly, my wife doesn't mind.

"It reminds me of what I went through and how lucky I am," he added. "It reminds me of how life is there to be lived to the full.

"When I got stranded, of course, I did think that things weren't looking good.

"But I just quickly re-focused on making sure I got through, I prayed and I got through the night."

Gardner's willpower -- the sort which does not so much beat adversity as obliterate it - is overwhelming.

He talks with passion about his childhood. Growing up as the youngest of nine children on his parents' farm, Gardner was introduced to competition at an early age.

He was expected to work for the family business from the age of six. "The farm was our livelihood and we knew it," he said.

"The early mornings were tough, the winters were tough. I was jealous of the other kids in town who could just hang out together, or enjoy a lazy summer.

HARD WORK

"But I know now that I had a great upbringing. I had a close family and working on the farm taught me about discipline, about working your way towards something and about commitment in life.

"I think children now expect so much to be given to them. I want to be able to teach them, or show them, that with hard work you can achieve so much more."

Although his size, predictably, brought some hard times at school, his natural girth combined with plenty of heavy lifting on the farm from an early age helped him to develop his wrestler's physique.

"I have a 58-inch (147-cm) chest...maybe this was just meant to be," said Gardner, who once admitted to wrestling cows on the farm for fun.

Gardner was a late starter to the official sport of wrestling but his talent has still taken him to world championship gold in 2001 as well as Olympic gold in 2000, when in the final of his weight class he beat Karelin, Gardner's own hero and a man who had gone unbeaten internationally for the preceding 13 years.

Gardner knows the gold medal changed his life.

It afforded him a limited level of fame which no-one could begrudge. He appeared on the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? where he won $125,000 -- keeping half for himself and donating half to charity.

It also brought him plenty of admiration for his story. But it has not changed his personality.

An ambassador for his sport, Gardner said he was "terrified" at the prospect of wrestling being cut from the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is looking at the size of the Games and has warned all 28 sports that they must prove their worth in Athens.

Gardner is intent on being in Greece when wrestling returns to its spiritual home in August.

Thereafter, he hopes to have a family with wife Stacy, to write a book about his experiences and to "keep learning from mistakes to become a better person".

Does he ever just want to slow down and take it all in? "That's what September is for," he finally admits. "That's when I might sit back and enjoy it."

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