“I’d be a simple farmer in Wyoming, doing what farmers do,” was what Rulon Gardner said recently when asked about where he would have been without wrestling. “Sure I would have a good life, but there is no way I would have achieved what I have, or learned the life lessons I have or most importantly been able to impact the lives of so many others positively. That’s what keeps me up at night, worrying about all those kids who may lose a chance to learn about life’s lessons without wrestling.”
Now the sport of wrestling is not going away any time soon. In many parts of the world it remains as big as ever, and in the U.S. and Canada, inner city schools are adding programs not just for boys but for girls as well. However, without an Olympic dream to chase, should the IOC’s decision to remove the sport from the Games in 2020 hold, Gardner feels that many young people may ebb away from the sport not because they won’t be able to achieve the Olympic goal, but because those who do and can inspire them may not be there to lead the charge.
For a current generation of wrestlers there may be no one individual who is larger than life, literally or figuratively, than Gardner is these days. The Utah resident was the hero of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, winning gold with a stunning defeat of Russian legend Alexander Karelin. He returned to the Games to take a Bronze in Athens.
Around those triumphs, Gardner has had a series of unique and near-tragic setbacks that he has overcome time and again. After the 2000 Games he suffered a series of injuries from both a snowmobiling and motorcycle accident. Those injuries included an amputated toe and a dislocated wrist, but he still went on to win the U.S. Olympic trials for his weight class and then to compete in the 2004 Games. He experienced a massive weight gain and then went public to lose the weight, competing in The Biggest Loser reality show.
All through his ups and downs, Garner has pointed to the life skills he learned through wrestling as the keys to success, even in the face of great personal hardship.
“My whole life has been about never giving up, even at the darkest moments,” he added. “I can think back to what I was able to achieve and summon the strength and the will to keep going, and I’m certainly not alone in that way. You hear similar stories from wrestlers all the time, whether they are competing on the high school level or internationally. It goes back to your core life skills and all of those skills are built through what we experience in the gym and on the mat.”
Gardner continues to marvel at the sport, even after the Olympic vote, continues to be a subplot in uniting cultures. He pointed to the words of Russian Prime Minister Putin, and the experience the U.S. team recently had in Iran as more examples of how the sport seems to have found its way to the souls of even the most hardened of political enemies.
“Whenever we wrestled internationally there was always respect among the opponents, that was never in question,” he said. “However the actions of political leaders to be unified on a front--that wrestling needs to be in the Olympics--is really something I have never seen in all my years. It goes to show you how powerful sport can be, and that our sport may even be more special than any other.”
These days, Gardner continues to motivate young people through his speaking work. He also recently traveled abroad to speak to Americans about his experiences, and is spending a good amount of time reaching out to whomever will listen about getting wrestling back in the Games.
“We live in a pretty complex world, but this seems to be an issue that is pretty clear--I can’t find anyone who understands how a core Olympic sport should not be in The Games, and we have to do whatever we can with whatever resources we can to make sure that those officials who made this decision realize that it was a mistake, and that we have changed or altered what we needed to do, to make sure that the dreams of others are not stamped out. The Olympics without wrestling--it just can’t be possible,” he added.
What is possible is that one of America’s most legendary Olympic champions will continue to do everything in his power to inspire others and help right the wrong he sees that has been done.
“I pass people every day, from athletes like (NBA Hall of Famer) Karl Malone here in Utah to kids on the street and they ask what they can do--that support is tremendous," he concluded. "We have to figure out how to take it and make it impactful with the IOC, if that means getting a million signatures I will do it."
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.