Herriman • Rulon Gardner is standing at the edge of the mat, functioning as a gigantic clock.
“Six, five, four, three, two, one, time!”
Herriman High School’s returning wrestlers are going through a brief, introductory workout, with this segment devoted to finishing a period of a simulated match with a quick takedown.
The session is conducted by their new coach, who has brought copies of his autobiography (for sale, $20) and medals (free to touch), while delivering some highlights of the motivational message he presents to schools. That amounts to his primary job, along with conducting wrestling camps in multiple states and working in insurance sales, Gardner says.
In his initial meeting with the Herriman athletes and their parents in the school cafeteria, before the workout, Gardner is appearing as a former wrestling champion. He excels in this role. “It’s not often that you have an Olympic gold medalist walk through your door,” said Brad Tingey, Herriman’s athletic director.
Who knows? Maybe Gardner will become the next Cael Sanderson. The Olympic champion from Heber City has won seven NCAA championships as Penn State’s coach.
That’s a natural angle for this story, except nothing about Gardner, 46, fits into a tidy package. He’s determined to get into better shape by wrestling season so he can better demonstrate moves and holds to his athletes. Yet even weighing 400-plus pounds is part of his larger-than-life persona.
“I knew who he was, but when I saw him in front of my eyes, I kind of couldn’t believe it at first,” Herriman wrestler Talmage Carman said, “and then I was like, ‘That’s Rulon Gardner!’ ”
The inevitable question for anyone who has tracked Gardner’s career since that 2000 triumph over legendary Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin in Sydney is how long he will stick with his latest pursuit of coaching the Mustangs in the southwestern Salt Lake Valley. In an interview after the workout, Gardner spoke of challenging Class 6A power Pleasant Grove by developing Herriman’s program over the next “four or five years.”
Herriman administrators are convinced he’s “committed for the long run,” said Tingey, who went through a similar hiring process in 2017. “He’s certainly qualified. He’s been coached by the best and he’s motivated to elevate our program. We don’t want to hire a coach every year.”
Amid failed business efforts that included a gym in Logan and forced him into bankruptcy protection and a sale of wrestling memorabilia, Herriman’s latest coach has stuck consistently with one job description: being Rulon Gardner. He’s incurably friendly and maintains the demeanor of a humble Wyoming farm boy, which plays well in retelling how he staged one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, if not all of sports.
This explains why there’s a lot of Karelin in his introduction to the Herriman parents and not so much about how he intends to run the program, other than promising to be fair. “The best wrestler wrestles” in the varsity lineup, he said.
And so he continues with the stories of winning the Olympic and World titles, then taking a bronze medal in another Games after having lost a toe to frostbite in a snowmobiling misadventure. His informal speech is mostly a collection of motivational clichés:
“Probably my biggest philosophy is there’s nothing that isn’t possible.”
“The only person that limits your potential is ultimately yourself.”
“You learn more from your losses than you do from your victories.”
The teenagers listen intently. A mother has only one question: Will he attend every practice?
Gardner acknowledged needing to travel once a week for his out-of-state school appearances, but insisted the Mustangs would get his full effort. “I’m not going to give you 50 percent,” he said.
The wrestlers will respond to him; that’s already evident. “He’s charismatic; he makes people feel comfortable around him,” Tingey said.
“The kids are excited, the parents are excited, the coaches are excited,” said Larry Jaramillo, a longtime high school coach who will assist Gardner.
Herriman’s wrestling tradition is taking hold in the 8-year-old school. The Mustangs finished third in the 6A state tournament in February, 2½ points behind runner-up Layton, and Tingey said, “We want to be an elite program in the state.”
That would mean rising to the level of Pleasant Grove. The Vikings have a mythical aura almost like Karelin, who had gone unbeaten for 13 years until encountering Gardner in Sydney. “Pleasant Grove’s loaded, so … a lot of work ahead of us,” Gardner said, standing in the middle of the mat after the workout. And then came the punctuation, straight from the motivational manual:
“One takedown at a time, huh?”
Birthplace: Afton, Wyo.
College: Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho); Nebraska.
Olympics: Greco-Roman wrestling, gold medal (Sydney, 2000) and bronze medal (Athens, 2004).
World Championship: 2001, defeated Mikahly Deak-Bardos of Hungary to become the first American to win Olympic and world titles in Greco-Roman wrestling.
National Wrestling Hall of Fame: Inducted in 2010 in Stillwater, Okla.
Autobiography: “Never Stop Pushing: My Life From a Wyoming Farm to the Olympic Medals Stand.”