Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rulon Gardner

Utah Spirit Magazine
By Scott Schulte
Douglas Schulte

Spending time with Rulon Gardner is much like hanging out with a kid. A really big kid, mind you, but a kid just the same.

“Check this out,” Gardner says as he punches the buttons of his cell phone. He turns the phone display. “It’s me and Garth Brooks.”

A few seconds later a new photo, “Jason Giambi.

“These guys are cool,” Gardner says. “It’s been fun to get to know these guys. They’re all a lot of fun."

“Wanna see something?” he asks.

Rulon opens the door to his garage where he keeps some of his fun toys, a Hummer, a specialized Harley Davidson motorcycle and a souped-up Mustang.

“You wouldn’t believe the deal I got on this Hummer…” he says proudly.

Now, understand, Gardner is not bragging. It’s not in his nature. For Gardner, it’s about sharing. Sharing what his hard work has given him.

“What fun is it if you can’t share your experiences and your life with others?” he asks. And it’s been that way since his retirement following his last match at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games where he claimed the Bronze medal. On that day, Gardner simply removed his shoes, a symbolic gesture of retiring from the sport of wrestling, and walked away. The man who had shocked the world four years earlier when he snatched the Gold medal by defeating the “unbeatable” Alexander Karelin of Russia and overnight became Sydney’s version of the 1980 U.S. Hockey team, had reached his goals and knew it was time to move on.

“When I removed my shoes after that last match,” Gardner says, “I had a mixture of emotions. It was sad because I knew it was the last time I would wrestle competitively, but as athletes we all think about what we’ll do when it’s all over, and then it happens."

"On that day I closed a chapter of my life,” he says. “Now I’m on to a new one. I get to coach, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m involved in wrestling on many different levels.”

And although he enjoys reminiscing, Gardner is no dumb jock locked into his glory days. Gardner has clear business and personal goals he works just as hard to achieve as he did when he wrestled. His approach to these aspects of life remains the same as his drive to becoming part of Olympic history. It’s all about perspective for the North Salt Lake (Utah) resident.

“Wrestling and winning were never really identical goals in my life,” Gardner says. “Even winning the gold medal wasn’t necessarily the achievement of my goal. The goal in wrestling was to compete at the highest level I could and walk off the mat knowing I had done everything I could to win. Each time I competed I just needed to know that I had wrestled the best I could. In 2000, I did that and won the Gold medal. In 2004 I did the same thing and came away with the bronze. I don’t have regrets.”

Gardner lives in the moment. He has found the middle ground and ability to utilize his past experiences for today’s life.

“I do a lot of speaking,” he says. “I could live off my speaking engagements, but I have other interests that I want to pursue.”

The speaking engagements take in a number of audiences, from school children to high powered corporate executives. The message remains the same for these diverse audiences, only the delivery changes. The ability to motivate and give people, especially children, the confidence to strive for worthy goals gives Gardner his greatest joy.

“I don’t think winning a Gold medal will be the biggest impact I have on the world I live in,” he says. “Having the chance to take my experiences, the good times and the tough times and deliver a message to people and hopefully encourage them to dream big and not to give up when the going gets tough…that is a much bigger responsibility for me.”

“I want to utilize my experiences to inspire people,” he says. “If I can give people something to hang on to or a reason to get out of bed in the morning then I feel I’m being successful."

“When I give a speech and then receive letters or e-mails from parents telling me the positive impact I had on their child,” Gardner says, “that’s when I’m reminded that it’s a much bigger calling to have a good influence on the lives of others through my experiences than it was winning a Gold medal.”

Away from the podium, Gardner is using his background in physical education and his name for one of his newest ventures, Rulon Gardner’s L.A. Workout, a combination of workout facility and wrestling gym. The facility, slated to open in late 2007 in Logan, is part of the process of expanding the sport that has given him so much in his own life.

“We’re real excited about the facility,” Gardner says. “This will be a place people can workout, but also a place where we can start a competitive wrestling club for young people.”

Gardner explains this is the first step in developing several similar facilities in Utah and Wyoming.

“Between my partners and myself, we have about 70 years of experience, and we want to utilize those skills for something positive like this.” And as Gardner works on the fitness facilities, he is also eying the opportunity to invest in the oil industry. True to his background as an outdoorsman, Gardner isn’t interested in tearing up virgin land to hunt for new hot spots. Rather, by investing in Granite Energy, he will be part of a system that will work existing oil fields, leaving nature to itself and those, like himself, who want to experience all it has to offer.

“Right now I’m doing some marketing for Granite,” he says. “When you travel the world, you can see what we truly have and what we can lose, so owning stock in this company and actually owning some oil wells is a great opportunity for me as a businessperson and as an individual."

“Our job is to go in and help oil fields that are existing and quite honestly make some good money at the same time.”

Gardner has stepped off the wrestling mat as a competitor and is becoming a smart businessman, and in doing so offers simple advice for those seeking success in either direction.

“When I began training for the Olympics,” Gardner says. “I had to take a step back one time and look at it from a realistic point of view; much like a businessperson has to look at the risks of investing time and money into a venture.” Gardner noted he knew the average Olympic athlete retires in his or her mid-30s with no guarantees of financial reward, let alone security. This is, after all, the United States where most Olympic athletes fund themselves through personal and family sacrifice or by receiving small sponsorship stipends from businesses.

“I had to look at it and say, ‘Am I willing to sacrifice today, tomorrow and the next eight years of my life and then be able to walk away from the sport and be able to go into teaching and be OK?’” Gardner says. “I was willing to take that jump. It’s the same in business. There are no guarantees in life. But I knew I could be satisfied when my career ended if I worked as hard as I could at my goals."

“I have the same approach to business."

“If I go after something and do everything I can to be successful, then I can live with the outcome.”
This was a first for me professionally as my son, Doug (12), worked with me on this story. It was part of his Journalism Merit Badge and he did a great job. Doug asked some great questions that I had not thought of. I think due to Rulon's nature of staying young at heart, having a 12 year-old's perspective during the time we all spent together was important to the final product. As for Rulon, he's a great guy and lives in a nice home in a typical Utah neighborhood. He is always approachable by people and is great with fans. We did this interview just weeks before his latest brush with death, a plane crash into Lake Powell.

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