‘Rulon Gardner Won’t Die’ relives Olympic triumph and life struggles of Herriman High coach

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner displays a photo of his historic upset over Russian Aleksandr Karelin for the gold medal during the 2000 Sydney Olympics as he meets with students and parents on Wed. May 16, 2018, to introduce himself as the new wrestling coach at Herriman High school.

UPDATE: The premiere of the documentary has been postponed. OlympicChannel.com has not yet announced when it will be rescheduled.

The Olympic A documentary about Herriman High’s wrestling coach starts streaming Wednesday on olympicchannel.com, which isn’t as odd as it might sound. The Mustangs’ coach is Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner.

The story of his stunning victory at the 2000 Olympics is a major part of “Rulon Gardner Won’t Die,” but — as you might have guessed from the title — there’s a lot more to it than just the thrill of victory. Gardner had to think about it before he agreed to be interviewed about his failures as well as his triumphs.

“Some people are asking, ‘Why did you do this?’ That it makes me look bad,” he said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “It wasn’t easy for me to watch when it was done. I kind of shied away and covered my head. It almost makes me feel bad, like I want to hide from society. It’s hard to show your failures. It’s hard to show your shortcomings.”

“Rulon Gardner Won’t Die” is not all about his trials, however. It retells the story of one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history, when Gardner defeated Russian legend Aleksandr Karelin to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. It’s hard to overstate how big an upset it was — Karelin had won the gold at the three previous Summer Olympics; he hadn’t been beaten in 13 years; he hadn’t given up a point in six years; other wrestlers went into matches with Karelin not trying to win, but trying to avoid getting hurt.

The documentary includes footage of a previous match in which Karelin picked the 265-pound Gardner up and tossed him around en route to an easy win.

No one was more surprised by his victory over Karelin than Gardner himself. Two decades later, he still sounds surprised.

“My goal wasn’t to win an Olympic medal. My goal was just to go out there, make the team and then compete,” he said. “People said, ‘You knew you were going to win a gold medal.’ And I’m like, ‘No! Just to show up and compete was a huge accomplishment for me.’”

That a young man who grew up in the tiny town of Afton, Wyo., and didn’t make the varsity wrestling team until his senior year in high school went on to win two Olympic medals — gold in 2000; bronze in 2004 — is a fascinating story. That Gardner also suffered life-threatening frostbite; was injured in a car accident and wrestled the day after pins were removed from his hand; survived a plane crash; suffered business failures and bankruptcy; and struggled so publicly with his weight — including a season on “The Biggest Loser” — makes his story all but astonishing.

“There’s just so many challenges that I went through, and not all of them I’m proud of,” Gardner said. “But you can’t just say, ‘Oh, look at when I won the Olympics.’”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Rulon Gardner, right, of the USA slips a move from Russia's Alexandre Kareline during their 130kg Greco-Roman gold medal match Sept. 27, 2000. Gardner defeated the Russian 1-0.

And not everything made it into the documentary — like the time when he came home from a junior high wrestling tournament and was feeding the cows in the dark when his sister drove over his legs with a pickup truck.

“I told her she ran over me and she said, ‘Shut up and get in the truck.’ We got to the house and I showed her the track marks on my pants and she said, ‘Holy cow — I did run you over.’ That’s just life,” Gardner said. “It is astonishing to think all these things have happened. When I look back, I just shake my head.”

Filmmaker Adam Irving’s 90-minute documentary looks at Gardner’s upbringing as the youngest of nine children. He had a distant relationship with his father, and his classmates taunted him about his struggles with schoolwork and with his weight.

“These were my friends. And still, when they got an opportunity, they’d razz you and tease you,” Gardner said. “One second they’re your good buddies and the next second they’re kind of just torturing you. I don’t know if it was bullying.”

It definitely was.

“But those are the things that kind of created that toughness. Those are the adversities that made me have that grit,” he said. “That came about because of the rejection and being told, ‘You can’t do it. You’re not good enough to do it.’”

And he uses his experiences to try to make it better for the wrestlers he now coaches. “I really try to create a team where our guys are not hurting and teasing each other. You just pick each other up,” Gardner said.

Despite his trials, Gardner remains remarkably upbeat and unassuming. He was a regular guy when he won Olympic medals; he’s a regular guy today.

“I chose to retire [in 2004]. I could’ve kept wrestling for another eight years and still been competitive,” he said, “but it wasn’t about being famous. I wanted to live a normal life.”

(David Guttenfelder | AP file photo) USA's Rulon Gardner smiles from the top of the medal stand after defeating Russia's Alexandre Kareline in the 130 kg Greco-Roman wrestling final at the Sydney Olympic Games, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2000.

He moved to Utah permanently, more or less, after his second Olympics. He grew up on the western edge of Wyoming, a couple hundred miles from Salt Lake City, but he recalled frequent trips to Utah when he was a kid for everything from visits to Lagoon to shopping for school clothes.

(His family has deep roots in Utah. His great-great-grandfather was Archibald Gardner, whose West Jordan mill is now the centerpiece of Gardner Village. “The last wife on the left, that’s Mary Larson — my great-great-grandmother,” he said.)

In the aftermath of his win in 2000, Gardner did become a bit of a media sensation. He was interviewed by David Letterman, Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson, Conan O’Brien, Rosie O’Donnell and Carson Daily. He endorsed products. He got invited to a party at the Playboy Mansion, but didn’t go because his mother was “not happy” about that.

He guest starred in an episode of Don Johnson’s TV series “Nash Bridges,” and had a small role in the movie “The R.M.”

“But I went right back to training. I won the worlds [Greco-Roman wrestling championship] the next year,” Gardner said.

He’d long thought about coaching, although he didn’t plan to end up at Herriman High. He volunteered to deliver a bit of a pep talk and show wrestlers there some technique — a friend’s nephew was on the team — and when the wrestling coach position opened up, friends encouraged him to apply for it.

He wasn’t sure about it at first, but he’s clearly glad he took the job. He wants to build the Mustangs into a powerhouse.

“We had a really good year my first year, and then they split the team up,” he said. Mountain Ridge High opened, and about half the team lived in the boundaries of the new school.

“This year was a challenge, but I probably had more fun this year even though it was more stressful,” Gardner said. “We had a lot of starting freshmen. These kids had never wrestled before. And you could see these kids never quitting on themselves even though they did get beat up. And, man, that’s what I had every day to get to the Olympics — that love, that passion to get better.”

He said his “biggest issue” now is that “I’m much bigger than I should be.” When he went on “The Biggest Loser” in 2011, he weighed 474 pounds. After getting down to 301, he quit the show — and regained much of the weight he’d lost.

“I watch the documentary and I’m just ashamed,” Gardner said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traycee Norman, 16, jokes around with Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner during a recent clinic after being introduced as the new coach at Herriman High School.

Some parents of Herriman wrestlers have expressed “concern that I’m going to hurt the kids. That I’m going to land on them. And that hurts.”

In the past few months, he’s “gotten serious about getting healthy again” and has lost 30 pounds. “My goal is to get back to my Olympic weight and walk in there and show all these kids the technique I did when I was competing. That could be the best example for these kids.”

And at the age of 48, Gardner is thinking about what he wants his legacy to be. And he wants it to be more than just a guy who won Olympic medals.

“I want to be known as a good guy, not as a champion or whatever,” he said. “I’ve come a long way. I’ve been humbled and knocked down, but I found a way to just be happy in every opportunity and try to maximize that every day.”


The premiere of “Rulon Gardner Won’t Die” has been postponed. OlympicChannel.com has not yet announced when it will be rescheduled.

For more information about Gardner, go to rulongardner.com.