Rulon Gardner has almost died quite a few times in his 39 years—just how many is open to interpretation. He certainly could have died in 2002 when he got lost on his snowmobile and spent the night almost freezing to death in the Wyoming wild. He concedes that the motorcycle crash in '04 could have done him in, and the plane crash in '07 could have too. But as for the times as a child when he was pierced by an arrow or fell out of the back of a truck or tumbled into a hay hauler, or when a Russian bear of a wrestler named Alexander Karelin broke his neck, well, as Gardner says impatiently, "those don't count."
Funny thing, then, that the one time Gardner truly felt as if he were staring death in the face was in a hotel room in Stillwater, Okla. He was there last June to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and afterward he watched a clip of himself on TV accepting the honor. Only the image wasn't him at all. It ... was ... this ... thing. He squinted at the television, and every part of his mind screamed to turn away. "I forced myself to watch," he says.
And forcing himself, he stared hard at the enormous mass of flabby skin and muscle that had once been Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner.
Where does a lost soul turn in modern America? Where does a proud athlete turn when he steps on a 435-pound scale and maxes it out, when he sneaks into convenience stores late at night to buy nine candy bars ("Three for a dollar, right?" he says), when he gets winded walking down a hallway? Where does a man turn when nothing makes sense, when he feels unworthy of love, when he sees his glorious past as something he can never relive or escape?
That horrible day in Oklahoma, staring at his bloated image, Gardner decided that the only thing that could save him, the only thing that could help him live again, was to go on NBC's reality TV show The Biggest Loser.
"Seventy calories," Rulon says as he points at a bag of apple slices on the table. He is sitting by the pool at the ranch, in Calabasas, Calif., where The Biggest Loser is filmed. He can tell you how many calories are in everything. And he can tell you how many calories every exercise burns. He expects to burn at least 7,000 calories during the show's workouts today.
"I didn't watch reality TV," he says. "I always said that my own reality was depressing enough. But I needed this show. I needed the pressure. I'm an athlete. It sounds corny, but I needed to beat Karelin again."
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Gardner beat Karelin for Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestling gold. It remains one of the great upsets in the history of the Games. Karelin was a marvel: He wrote poetry by day and trained by carrying refrigerators up stairs. He had won three gold medals and yielded only a single point in two years. Gardner was, in his own words, "a pudgeball who had grown up milking cows in Wyoming." The only other time they had fought, in 1997, Karelin broke two vertebrae in Gardner's neck. Here's how absurd the mismatch was: Henry Kissinger was there to celebrate the Russian's victory.
But in the second period of the match Gardner broke a hold to go up 1--0. The crowd gasped. Then, still trailing in the final blurring minutes, Karelin could not penetrate Gardner's defenses. "I was just willing to go places he wasn't" is how Gardner explains it. With five seconds left the great Karelin bowed his head in defeat. Rulon Gardner was a sensation.
"The problem is, in the real world, everything goes 10 mph, and I'm used to going 100 mph," Gardner says. He won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004, but over the next four years his life began to spiral down uncontrollably. He divorced his second wife; struggled to get financing for a health club he wanted to build in Logan, Utah; lost faith. He wondered what he could do with the rest of his life. "When you're used up as an athlete," he says, "people forget you."
Even after he built his gym, even after he married Kamie—whom he calls "the most beautiful woman I've ever known"—he felt adrift.
"Why?" one of The Biggest Loser trainers, Brett Hoebel, asked him.
"Look at me," Gardner shouted. He had ballooned to 474 pounds—210 more than his weight in Athens.
At first the show's producers were skeptical of Gardner's commitment to losing weight; after all, he had his own gym and he wasn't using it. They put him through 2½ months of interviews and auditions, alone and with other hopefuls. At one point Gardner was ready to walk away. But, in the end, the producers took him on.
Through 11 weeks on the show—contestants are sequestered without cellphones, Internet or newspapers—Gardner has lost almost 139 pounds. He admits he has neither played the show's game especially well nor interacted much with the other contestants. ("I'm not here to be social," he says.) But that's not the point.
"I didn't come here to win The Biggest Loser," he says. "Sure, I'd like to win. I'm a competitor. But I came here... . Well, you know I've almost died so many times that I started to think I couldn't die."
Rulon Gardner smiles as he munches on his apple slice. "I want to live," he says.
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Where does a lost soul turn in modern America? Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner decided the only thing that could save him was reality TV.