◆ New documentary delves deeper into the man we think we know.
Most long-time Star Valley residents have a story or a memory about Rulon Gardner, the farm boy who grew up milking cows in Star Valley and became an Olympic champion by beating an unbeatable opponent.
Some of those stories are kind and some of them are not. Regardless of whether or not you think you know the details of the man before, during and after fame, a new documentary simply titled “Rulon” is shedding light on the lesser known parts of his journey and rediscovering who he is moving forward.
“When you open up yourself to tell the story of your life and share your hardships and your journey, documentaries are a little different and they can tell a story that can be a good light or a bad light so it’s hard to open yourself up and have people critique you,” Gardner told SVI.
“Rulon recently spoke with Duke Dance and David Cazier on Swift 98 and discussed this film which can be viewed for free at olympicchannel.com/rulongardner.
“Growing up in Star Valley was such a huge part of my development,” he said. “To be able to go to college and ultimately to the Olympics; it had a big impact on my life. People have expressed that [this documentary] was so raw and honest. To hear that it was pretty amazing to express the feelings that we have growing up in the area.”
Gardner skyrocketed to fame during the 2000 Sydney Olympics by defeating the unbeatable Alexander Karelin who was expected to gather his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. Instead, it was Gardner who performed what came to be known as the “Miracle on the Mat” and cartwheeled into history.
The next few years were filled with challenges and obstacles such as nearly freezing to death in the mountains of the valley and losing toes due to the experience. He battled back to win the bronze in the 2004 Olympics in Greece but hardships, bad luck and life-threatening events continued to pepper his life.
Gardner spoke about opening up about points in your life that one would rather not necessarily talk about.
“It was hard to open up but that’s what makes it special,” he said. “You get to the international world and people think you’re born as a champion and you’re not. It was just a stepping stone and I got beat up by my brother Reynold who helped me develop as a wrestler and growing up and having some great success and then after that some of the setbacks and obstacles and remember you have to put one foot in front of the other and keep on going.”
As many things that are discussed in the documentary, there are still stories that are not, that still add to the flavor of Gardner’s journey. One such story involved show-and-tell in third grade and an unfortunate experience with an arrow.
“We were helping one of the medical staff and he gave me a bow and arrow for show and tell,” recounted Gardner. “I showed it to the class and was putting it away and dropped the practice arrow and bent over to pick it up and I stabbed myself with the other one so we had to go to the hospital with an arrow sticking out of me.”
The documentary also relives the moments that bonded Gardner’s home town with his accomplishments on the world stage.
“I’ve done quite a few interviews but when you talk about growing up on the farm in Star Valley the valley has changed,” he continued. “So to follow that again all the way from high school, to coming back to that celebration and the Jay Leno Show [is emotional]. ‘The support and everything [from the community] and I’m crying and Jay is making fun of me but it’s such a special place. It’s truly a special place. Working the fields and being out there late at night it was some of those steps that give you the belief in yourself to succeed. How the valley came together to help my family; it was a special place to grow up.”
So what is Rulon up to now? It involves wrestling which is where he feels at home.
“I recently moved to St. George,” he said. “I was the head coach at Herriman High School in Salt Lake City and we had a pretty good team but I was looking forward to a new opportunity and a new adventure with wrestling.”
This prompted him to put together a youth wrestling group for the region.
“I’m wanting to make a difference and inspire kids,” he added. “We’re going to have youth wrestling across the board. I want to show that you can open up with some basic skills but then you can make it to the top of the world.”
Gardner is rediscovering his identity through coaching.
“I think we always evolve,” he continued. “After you win the Olympics you feel you can do anything. I got involved with some things and got burned for millions of dollars. So to go from the top of the world and then have the frostbite and come back and went the bronze and then get knocked back down again it’s been tough. We have to remember the basic fundamentals of who we are. My mom said it best when I left for Ricks College, keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds and remember who you are and where you’re from.”
Director Adam Irving spoke with SVI about putting together the documentary and admitted he had not heard of Gardner before taking on the project.
“They were looking for great stories that for whatever reason were not as well known,” he said of the project pitch. “After reading two or three sentences about him on Wikipedia I was shocked that he hasn’t had a movie made about him. There’s no way to mess this up.”
Irving’s take on Rulon will likely show new angles even to those who grew up with him.
“After he sort of faded away, the coverage of him got more spotty,” Irving said. “I called it Rulon’s Third Act. What does this guy do now that he’s got the rest of his life as a person who used to famous or used to be rich. I was drawn to that part of the story.”
So what is next for the man who continues to defy the odds?
“My goals are to reach out in the wrestling world,” Gardner said. “It’s not just about being a wrestler but it’s about taking it back to when kids believed and played and kids were being kids and being adventurous. Whatever sport it is, let’s make your community a better place and try and make things better in this world.”
He also hopes that his travels will bring him home more often.
“I’ve been all over the world,” he concluded. “I’ve been to 44 countries and it’s amazing how many people know where Star Valley is and they say it’s heaven. I say not in February but it is a special place. To have all the people and the memories and core values and remembering our history and I look back to all the people that I’ve known and it helps us become the people that we are. I hope to come back and be part of the community.”