February 27, 2011


The Man Who Wouldn't Die: Olympic hero Rulon Gardner has fallen off trucks, tumbled off tractors, and gotten stuck in a baler. He has been impaled on an arrow, broken his neck, and gashed his knee clean to the bone. He has survived several catastrophic high-speed accidents, endured a frostbitten night in subzero temperatures, and most recently, swam away (barely) from a plane crash in Lake Powell. In between, he pulled off one of the great upsets in sports history and became an American legend. Meet Rulon Gardner, the luckiest man on earth (Michael Paterniti, August 2007, GQ)

To find the real Rulon, the Ru of "fire and fury," you had to go back to a time before Sydney, before Karelin. You had to go back to junior year in high school and all those wrestling practices in the Star Valley High School gym, where it was Rulon, fueled by his feelings of isolation and bitterness, versus Reynold, in all his superiority. Day in and day out, a lifetime of rivalry coming to a climax, every day, one trying to finally gain the upper hand, the other trying to maintain it. They were two big boys, teeming with testosterone, teeing off: the clash of titans. Rulon might beat him in a practice, but when it came time for the real wrestle-off to see who would represent the team's varsity in the next meet, Reynold would get in Ru's head and win. Back and forth like this for a season, and a few weeks before they were to wrestle-off one last time to see who would represent the team at regionals and states—with Rulon convinced there was no way he could lose this time—Rulon gashed his leg on a tractor while working in the fields as Reynold sat inside, watching the Super Bowl. Ignoring the injury, Rulon landed in the hospital with an infection, a leg swollen with pus. According to the doctor, the worst-case scenario was amputation.

But Rulon didn't really care about that. He still thought he could wrestle. The biggest letdown came when Coach arrived at Ru's hospital bed on the Sunday before the Monday wrestle-off and said, "It's Reynold's senior year, and you need to get all healed up." Until that moment, Rulon actually thought they were still on—and he was ready to go. Even more amazing, Coach knew he had to show up at the hospital in order to call Ru off, otherwise the kid would have been there, hobbling around in his singlet, frothing to have at it. Reynold won the state championship that year. And something switched inside of Ru. He was sick of being the snot-nosed runty brother, the perennial also-ran. He was sick of being overshadowed and made invisible. With few believers behind him, his belief in himself became fully formed. And so he entered the visible world. Someone might beat him on the mat again, but never would he lose because of self-doubt or fear.

Olympic wrestlers usually come with a cred sheet: NCAA and national championships, few matches ever lost, years of international experience, and intense training. By the time Ru graduated from Nebraska, he was regarded as a good wrestler but not great, though steadily improving. He had no college championship, no aura that surrounded him. And he'd only wrestled folkstyle, which is a particular American quirk in the sport. It wasn't until 1993 that Rulon first wrestled Greco-Roman, in which one is not permitted to score a takedown by attacking below the waist, and with some early successes, kept at it. By the 1996 Olympic Trials, he was a threat, but with a staph infection in his leg again, he missed weigh-ins. He got to watch Karelin—known as "the Madman" for, among other things, once having carried a refrigerator on his back up eight flights of stairs—win his third Olympic gold on television.

Four years later, Rulon won the Olympic Trials. Rather, he'd won it day by day, over the intervening years, slowly grinding, teaching himself as he went, recording the weaknesses of his training partners, gathering slights in his mind to unleash on the mat, surpassing his teammates one by one. Every practice, every second of every practice, he went all the way. Ru remembered Brian "No Neck" Keck laughing at "the little fat kid" training so hard. Oh, he was laughable all right—with his fifty-four-inch barrel chest, unchiseled body, and Teletubby ears—but he wasn't going home.

There was a drill known as "shark bait," in which a wrestler takes the center of a circle and the other wrestlers ring the perimeter, jumping into the pit in tag-team fashion, over time breaking down the "shark." After a point, most sharks just try to hold on, but Ru's attitude was the opposite. He kept repeating to himself: "I'm going to beat all of your asses—and you're going to be damn happy when it's over." And that's exactly what he did. He had the strange capacity to get stronger as he went, his huge oxygenating lungs, the product of a life of hard work lived at altitude, giving him more stamina. And there came a time when few of his national teammates wanted to wrestle him anymore. They were worried for their safety.

"Your worst nightmare as a wrestler," said Grant, "was to give Ru a reason to go psycho." When forced to wrestle him, they did everything they could not to anger him, because when Ru got angry he got that faraway look in his eye and started attacking, surging, muscling his opponent to the mat. "I just tried to get ahead of them, move by move," Ru said.

Even "No Neck" Keck later confessed: The little fat kid had outtrained and outwrestled everyone. He deserved his rich reward. What set Ru apart was that he could tap into some ancient fear—some fear of being left behind, forced to the outside of the circle, or forgotten, some fear of dying—and convert it to the kind of controlled rage, the kind of transcendence one needed to win on the mat. Fear, then, became ferocity.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2011 6:36 AM
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