Not every fairy tale story has a happy ending, or even an appropriate ending.
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The happy ending would have been for 40-year-old Rulon Gardner — the Greco-Roman Olympic gold medalist from the 2000 Olympics, who ballooned up to 474 pounds and then captured hearts by shedding weight on the reality show “The Biggest Loser” — to come to the Olympic Trials on Saturday and shock the world by gaining a spot on another Olympic team.
The appropriate ending would have been for Gardner to lose to his archrival in the 264½-pound weight class, Dremiel Byers, and bow out from his sport with a miraculous near-miss.
But life isn’t a fairy tale, so instead the ending for Gardner looked like this: Surrounded by cameras and reporters in a small room with cinder-block walls inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, explaining how his astounding weight loss of more than 200 pounds over the past two years had fallen just shy of getting below the maximum weight for Olympic heavyweights.
The day before, Gardner, who’d been trying to lose those last few pounds so he could make weight for the Olympic trials, decided after a morning workout that he just couldn’t do it. He had five pounds to go and only six hours until weigh-ins. You can’t sweat that out. He called Byers, wished him luck, and decided he would skip weigh-ins and his last shot at another Olympics.
“This isn’t quite the circumstances I had wanted to be here under,” Gardner told reporters Saturday, almost as if he were apologizing.
Yet he needn’t apologize. Because the fact that the son of a Wyoming dairy farmer came this close to completing his Olympic comeback success ought to inspire as much as any medal.
It was two years ago when Gardner’s sister, a cardiologist, told him he’d be dead soon if he didn’t make drastic changes. He weighed 474 pounds. He was an ex-wrestler who’d let himself go. He’d stopped working out but kept eating as if he were an Olympian. Ahead of him could be a life of diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, congestive heart failure.
So he tried out for the reality television show “The Biggest Loser.” He dropped nearly 200 pounds. And he realized that, just maybe, he wasn’t quite done with wrestling.
“That’s where my competitive fire started reigniting itself, and as I left the show last year I realized I had more inside of me,” Gardner said. “I felt like I was probably at my healthiest when I was back in wrestling. Back when I was in wrestling I was at my healthiest, my happiest, a lot of positives in my life. For me it isn’t just about being a wrestler. It’s about being a healthier person.”
“And I’m pleased to tell you today that I’m healthy again.”
The victory for Gardner wasn’t getting back to the Olympics, though he was damn close to earning himself one more try. The victory was getting his life back. Not long ago, that seemed out of reach. But he’s spent a lifetime overcoming odds. The Russian Greco-Roman legend Gardner beat to win gold, Alexander Karelin, hadn’t lost a match in 13 years and hadn’t given up a point in six years. Gardner lost a toe to frostbite when he was stranded for nearly a day after a snowmobile accident in 2002. Oh, and he survived a small-plane crash in 2007, when he had to swim for an hour in a near-freezing lake until he reached safety.
“The night I got frostbite, I survived, and at 6 o’clock in the morning I saw the sun rise, and it was heaven,” Gardner said Saturday. “Every day was a party. Every day was live life to the fullest. I wrestled and trained that way up to 2004, and after I got done wrestling, I said, ‘OK, live it up,’ and I stopped training, and that’s when the weight started coming on.”
“I got on ‘The Biggest Loser’ for a reason — because I was foolish with my health,” Gardner said. “I think America, we need to start realizing that we’re accountable… I feel a little sad that I didn’t make the team. But that’s not my biggest goal. My biggest goal was realizing I was 474 pounds and yesterday I was 269 ½ pounds. That’s what my journey was. That’s over 200 pounds I lost.”
Steve Fraser, the US Greco-Roman coach, doubted whether Gardner would be able to make weight. But Fraser said Gardner, the most decorated Greco-Roman wrestler in US history, moved to Colorado Springs in October to train at the Olympic Training Center, and worked harder than anyone on the team. “From that point on he trained like a mad man,” Fraser said.
And now? Now Gardner hopes to stay around wrestling for good, helping Byers train for London. He hopes his story serves as a lesson to others. And he hopes to never be in that place again, where his life is at risk.
“Wrestling is part of my ingrown DNA now, and I need it to be part of my life,” he said. “Without it I think I lost some of my purpose.”
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.