His opponent in the 130kg Greco-Roman final was ‘The Russian bear’ Aleksandr Karelin, a three-time Olympic champion who had not lost an international bout in 13 years.
The American became an overnight sensation back home after the ‘miracle on the mat’, but soon found himself struggling with stardom, and battling to save his career after a life-threatening accident.
In the new Olympic Channel documentary ‘Rulon’, the Wyoming native shares his personal journey, from humble roots growing up on a dairy farm to finding fame, and how his resilience helped him to overcome adversity, and multiple near-death experiences.
Today, Gardner has taken the lessons learnt and built a new life for himself. He got married in October 2020, has lost around 50lbs (22.5kg) in weight, and recently moved to St. George, Utah, where he hopes to start a youth wrestling training centre.
The Olympic Channel original film will premiere digitally on Friday, 2 April 2021 on OlympicChannel.com and the official Olympic Channel apps for mobile and connected TV devices. Until then, you can get a taster of Gardner’s amazing story below.
1 - Rulon's tough upbringings
Rulon Gardner struggled at school due to a learning disability.
Some of the unwelcome nicknames given to him included Dumbo, and later Fatso due to his size.
He found success, and a new community that believed in him, in the athletics arena. Far from hindering his life, his size became his superpower.
As a senior in high school, The Wyoming native won a state wrestling title and placed second in the shot put. Shortly after, he became a national junior college heavyweight wrestling champion and walked on to the University of Nebraska’s football team.
But wrestling was the route Rulon decided to focus on.
2 - The champion reared on a dairy farm
Gardner spent hours working on his family’s 250-acre dairy farm in Wyoming.
He would rise before the sun to move bales of hay, chop wood, and milk and clean cows, and attributes his early strength to the rigors of this work.
His family were also a key part of the Mormon community. His great-great-grandfather Archibald Gardner was a bishop in the church and helped build the famed Salt Lake Temple.
3 - Gardner didn’t believe he’d win Olympic gold
Most Olympic champions will tell you that self-belief is key to being the best in the world.
But Gardner certainly isn’t most athletes, and approached his Olympic final believing that second-place would be a satisfactory achievement.
“Not a chance in the world,” he told Washington Post when asked if he believed he’d beat Karelin. “Sometimes crazy stuff happens. I was walking out there saying, ‘Well, I’m at least guaranteed a silver medal’."
But in the end, he found his inner steel. Despite facing such dramatic odds against the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, he decided to try and win gold to silence his doubters.
“All those people who told me I could never get here and get on this stage, I’m going to show them. I surprised myself probably more than them.”
4 - Rulon Gardner's near-death experiences
The wrestler has almost lost his life several times.
His first major accident happened when Gardner was in elementary school, and had his abdomen punctured by an arrow during a show and tell.
In 2002, two years after his Olympic triumph, he was involved in a snowmobile accident.
As the American shares in the Olympic Channel film 'Rulon', he got separated from the party he was with, became trapped in a shallow river, and was forced to spend the night in sub-zero temperatures with no shelter or jacket. He was rescued the next morning, but hypothermia and frostbite meant that he lost a toe.
Gardner is a thrill-seeker, and later on that year was involved in a motorcycle accident.
His next close shave came in 2007, when he survived a crash in a light aircraft. All three men in the plan swam for an hour in seven degree-water to reach the shore and spent the night without shelter, but no life-threatening injuries were sustained.
5 - Switching to mixed martial arts
Wrestlers have such a diverse skill-set, that they are often approached to compete in other sports.
After retiring from his event by adding a bronze medal in the Athens 2004 Olympics, Rulon ‘the wrecking ball’ Gardner accepted an invitation to compete in a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) bout.
He travelled over 9,000km to Japan to take on judo Olympic gold medallist Hidehiko Yoshida.
Despite sealing victory and a healthy paycheck as the underdog, Gardner decided to finish his MMA career then and there, as the sport didn’t carry the same honour for him as wrestling.
He also declined the opportunity to wrestle in the professional WWE ranks.
“I was offered millions by the WWE to compete for them and I turned it down,” Gardner said.
“My mom said, ‘Is this the kid that I raised? Is this who you want to be to the youth of America?’"
6 - Weight loss on The Biggest Loser
With such a large natural frame, Gardner struggled to control his weight after retiring from life as a professional sportsman.
In 2011, he accepted an offer to appear on American reality TV show ‘The Biggest Loser’, in an attempt to shed some of his 474lbs (215kg).
After losing 173lbs, he decided to leave the programme early for personal reasons.
Rulon's weight has fluctuated again since then, but has most recently lost 30lbs (13kg), thanks to his new personal trainer and cutting refined sugars and processed food out from his diet.
His goal is to get back to his wrestling weight of 265lbs (120kg).
7 - Finding stability after bankruptcy
One of the Greco-Roman grappler’s lowest moments came in 2012, when he filed for bankruptcy.
Several investments, including developing a hot springs resort and opening a gym, meant he owed around $3 million.
As a result, all of Gardner’s Olympic memorabilia and some of his vehicles were auctioned off.
Since turning his life around financially, he’s been able to reclaim most of it, and today is able to show his hard-won Olympic medals to his students.
With the help of some business mentors, Gardner is living a more stable life selling insurance, is an ambassador for a work-safety app, visits schools and workplaces as a motivational speaker, and stays in touch with his sport as a high school wrestling coach.
“All I can do is use the experiences of my life to inject knowledge into our youth,” Gardner says in the film. “Hopefully, they can see that. I was a good wrestler, but I want to be a better coach than I ever was as a wrestler.”