IOWA CITY, Iowa -- It was sometime on Friday morning when Rulon Gardner was forced to face the unthinkable. The body of the man who had seemingly endured all -- from a snowmobile accident to a plane crash, from a Russian he was told was unbeatable to weighing 474 pounds -- was telling him it had had enough.
He needed to lose just six more pounds to make the necessary weight to qualify for Saturday's U.S. Olympic wrestling trials and had six-and-a-half more hours until he had to weigh in. But his body was not cooperating. So Gardner sat there, weighing his two options: quit, rehydrate and put his body out of its misery or push himself even further, testing the limits one last time.
"Dream or reality," the 40-year-old said Saturday. "It was a choice. At the end of the day, it doesn't do me any good to walk out of there dead, or to be carried out of there. This is about being healthy, and no Olympic medal is going to make me healthier."
And so Gardner decided to quit right there, essentially ending his wrestling career. On Saturday, he spoke about his decision for the first time.
"I pushed myself for about a hard hour and I still had about six and a half hours before weigh-ins," Gardner said. "I started feeling pretty uncomfortable. I didn't feel good about it. I didn't feel good. I said, 'We've got to slow it down.' My body was to the point of saying it's time. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Is it worth it? Is it worth it?' I didn't come here to prove I'm still an Olympic gold medalist. I came here to prove I still have the heart of a champion."
It was two years ago that Gardner weighed 474 pounds and his sister, a cardiologist, told him he would be dead within five years. "That was an eye-opener," Gardner said. He joined the television reality show "The Biggest Loser" in a quest to regain his health. After losing some 200 pounds on the show, Gardner's competitive fire was re-lit; he quit the show and moved to Colorado Springs to focus on a return to the mat.
"I didn't know if he could do it," U.S. Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser said. "He was big. But let me tell you, this guy trained harder than any guy on our team."
Yet, in the end, it wasn't enough. Gardner admitted Saturday that his one regret was not focusing as much on his nutrition as he should have.
"I felt a little bit disappointed, but my body got to a point where it told me it's time you stop pushing yourself," Gardner said. "I could have hurt myself."
Gardner achieved world notoriety in 2000 when he stunned Russian Greco-Roman legend Alexander Karelin to win the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. Karelin hadn't lost a match in 13 years and was unscored upon in six. In 2002, Gardner nearly died in a snowmobile accident that left him stranded in Wyoming for 18 hours, resulting in the amputation of toe. Then, in 2007, he was a passenger on a small plane that crashed into Lake Powell in Utah, forcing Gardner and the other two passengers to swim for an hour in 44-degree waters to reach shore.
He came back to earn a bronze medal in Athens in 2004 then retired from the sport. At the time, Gardner said Saturday, he looked at life as one big party. He stopped training. He ate whatever he wanted, and his waist ballooned.
"Every day was live life to the fullest," Gardner said.
Now that Gardner has his life back, he faces the challenge of maintaining his weight without having the Olympics as a motivator. He said he hopes to stay involved with USA Wrestling, helping Greco-Roman wrestlers prepare for the London Olympics and other upcoming international competitions. He also said he hopes to box, run and do other cardio activities to prevent him from putting back on the 200 pounds he lost.
"This comeback, at the end of the day, even if I had another gold medal around my neck, it wouldn't be more impressive to me than two years ago where I started and where I am today," Gardner said. "[Friday] was probably one of the biggest weigh-ins in my life. It was a starting place and a finishing place. I feel still somewhat of a failure because I didn't make weight, but now I have to prove myself every day, and I think that's kind of bringing accountability to my life."