He gained international fame in 2000 by delivering a historic Olympic upset in Sydney, Australia, by defeating famed Russian giant and Roman Greco wrestler Aleksandr Karelin. Two years later, he lost a toe to frostbite but survived a night in the winter wilderness after his snowmobile became stuck.
And on Saturday, the 35-year-old Olympian beat the odds again when the single-engine plane he was flying in crashed into Lake Powell, leaving Gardner and two others onboard facing a 200-yard swim in 44-degree water and then a night on the shore in freezing temperatures.
The plane's pilot, Randy Brooks, sheepishly admitted Sunday night that their ordeal was the product of a moment of carelessness.
"I just got too close to the water and went in," said Brooks, who lives in Highland and is the owner and CEO of Barnes Ammunition in American Fork. "There was nothing wrong with the airplane or anything. I just screwed up."
Brooks, 58, said Gardner is in the process of earning a pilot's license and so the men, including Brooks' younger brother, Leslie, who is in his mid-40s, decided to fly to Lake Powell to look at Randy Brooks' houseboat - any excuse to spend some time in the air, he said.
On the way back, they were flying low in the main channel near Good Hope Bay around 2:30 p.m. when they crashed. Once their momentum was lost, the plane started to sink immediately, Brooks said. The men escaped the fuselage and started to swim for their lives.
"There were a lot of miracles and blessings I had just to make it to the shore," Gardner told KSL Channel 5 Sunday night. "It was just so kind of surreal - this really isn't happening to me."
The men stuck together for a while, but then Leslie Brooks started to pull away, Randy said. Leslie reached the shore in about an hour. Randy Brooks hit land about 15 minutes later, and Gardner, who had lagged behind the brothers, climbed onto the rocks of the bay nearly an hour and a half after the plane went down, Randy Brooks said.
"For a big guy to swim that far is incredible. He is the picture of mental health in my opinion," Brooks said.
Though on land, the hardest part of their ordeal still lay ahead.
"Really, the water part was less of a problem," Brooks said.
In wet T-shirts and jeans, the men huddled together as the temperature dipped into the 20s. Brooks figured they were about 25 miles north of the Bullfrog Marina, which is near the airstrip from which they took off.
Surrounded by rugged terrain and exhausted from their swim, their only chance to live was to stay put, stay warm and hope for help.
"In something like that you don't say, 'What do we do now?' You just do it," Brooks said.
Around 8 a.m. Sunday, the men flagged down a fisherman who helped them connect with a park service ranger who drove them back to Bullfrog Marina.
Steven Luckesen, district ranger for National Park Service at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, says the three are "very, very lucky."
"It takes only about 30 minutes for someone swimming in 44-degree water to start suffering severe effects of hypothermia, so the fact that they swam in it for a hour, not to mention surviving the plane crash and the night without fire or shelter, is pretty amazing," he said. "If these guys were a cat with nine lives, they just used up three of them."
Only Leslie Brooks required treatment at the hospital for frostbite, his brother said. Randy Brooks said he and Gardner did not receive serious injuries.
Gardner spent a cold night outdoors in February 2002 when his snowmobile got stuck in deep snow in the Wyoming mountains. He was rescued the next day, but not before frostbite had damaged one of his toes so badly it had to be amputated.
The loss of a toe threw off the balance critical to a wrestler, but he battled back to be the favorite to represent the United States at the 2004 Athens Olympics. In the months leading up to U.S. Team Trials, Gardner was slightly injured when a motorcycle he was riding in Colorado Springs, Colo., was hit by a car. A month later, he injured his wrist while playing pickup basketball.
Gardner now lives with his wife in Wellsville in the Cache Valley and is a motivational speaker. He wrote a book, Never Stop Pushing, which tells how he overcame significant odds to become a two-time Olympic medal winner.
* MIKE GORRELL contributed to this report.