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Nine minutes: How the Sydney Olympics changed wrestler Rulon Gardner's life

Nine minutes. That was all it took to change Rulon Gardner's life, for better or worse — one nine-minute wrestling match against a legendary Russian, and here he is, almost seven years later, still riding the wave of his Olympic triumph in Sydney.

The wave has brought him to Utah and deposited him in a mountainside home, high above North Salt Lake, where he lives conspicuously alone when he is here at all.

He spends 200 to 300 days a year on the road, telling people the story of how a Wyoming farm boy slew Goliath. He spends so many days on the road that he moved here to be close to Salt Lake International Airport, which can be seen from his balcony. He plans to buy a private plane soon to save travel time; he will pilot the plane himself. His life is travel, speaking and phone calls, all spin-offs from those magical nine minutes.

"When we first went to Sydney, we had no idea what was ahead of us," says Gardner's father, Reed, a retired dairy farmer.

The Olympic champ is now a professional motivational speaker, and the mention of this appellation causes Gardner, who is sitting at a table in his kitchen tapping intermittently at a laptop to check e-mail, to launch into an imitation of late comedian Chris Farley's famous Matt Foley character. He's got the voice, shape (300 pounds plus) and comedic instincts to pull it off.

"My name is Matt Foley," he begins, "and I'm a motivational speaker; I'm 35 years old and I live in a van down by the river."

But, of course, Gardner, now the same age as Foley, is not exactly living in a van down by the river eating government cheese. He is surrounded by the tell-tale signs of money. He lives in this spacious house, with its panoramic view of the Great Salt Lake and Bountiful. There is a 14-foot TV screen downstairs, along with a sauna/steam room. The two-car garage is crammed with a Hummer (license plate: KUJO), a vintage Mustang, an Audi and a Harley. In the driveway there is a shiny black pickup (GOLD), and parked elsewhere is a boat and a Jeep, and soon he will add the airplane to his transportation collection.

"I'm still blown away," says Gardner. "Every day is a miracle. I was going to be a first-year, 34-year-old P.E. teacher in Afton, Wyo."

Instead, he is a professional speechmaker who earns more in one week than a teacher makes in a year, pulling down about a million dollars annually. He travels 300,000 miles in a year and gives well over 100 speeches to groups ranging from John Hancock, AT&T, IBM, Wal-Mart and Blue Cross to pharmaceutical companies, farm organizations and schools. He pockets $10,000 to $15,000 per gig.

"He spent nine minutes on the mat with that ugly man from Russia," Reed Gardner likes to say with a laugh. "I spent 50 to 60 years on the farm, and I don't have nothin."'

Over and over, Gardner speaks about success, overcoming odds, persistence, hard work, etc., and, of course, those nine minutes. He tells of how the country boy beat the unbeatable, larger-than-life Alexander Karelin, the nine-time world champ and three-time Olympic champ, in the Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestling finals at the 2000 Olympics' Sydney Summer Games.

To fully appreciate that feat, you should know that Gardner didn't even qualify for an Olympic team until 2000, when he was 29 years old. Karelin, meanwhile, hadn't even been scored upon in 10 years. Opponents weren't as concerned about losing as much as escaping with their health. Karelin was famous for a reverse body lift in which he slammed his opponent on his head. The last time Gardner had faced Karelin he had lost 5-0, which is the equivalent of a 56-0 blowout in football. To this day, Gardner sees a chiropractor several times a month to treat a neck injury from one of his early bouts with the Russian (he believes he broke two vertebrae). As he sits at the computer, he rotates his head side to side periodically to make it pop and relieve stiffness.

The day of the match in Sydney, a friend called Gardner from the United States and pleaded with him not to compete against Karelin because it wasn't worth it. Bob Costas, the TV commentator, said the odds of Gardner winning were 2,000 to one.

Russian and Olympic dignitaries attended the match, planning to give Karelin his historic fourth gold medal. But, of course, Gardner prevailed 1-0, with Karelin doing the unthinkable in the final seconds, dropping his hands and mumbling a surrender.

Gardner has been living off that one victory ever since, becoming a multimillionaire in the process. He never envisioned that Olympic victory would pay off like this through all those years of training and meager stipends.

"This wasn't a dream," he says. "This was an unexpected happenstance."

No other gold medalist wrestler has ever been able to cash in like Gardner, not even the legendary Dan Gable or Utah's own Cael Sanderson, who were actually better, more accomplished wrestlers. But there has been no other win like Gardner's. It was Rocky Balboa beating Russian Ivan Drago; the U.S. hockey team beating the Russians. All of them dredged up the old Cold War rivalry.

Gardner has rushed to make the most of the opportunities those nine minutes gave him. Not only has he given hundreds of speeches, he has made significant investments in real estate. He has invested in the horse trade, buying a blue-blooded cutting horse to train and breed.

He is building a health club in Logan, which will be called Rulon Gardner L.A. Workouts.

He hopes it will be the first of several such ventures. He is part owner of American Trails Adventures, which makes accessories for four-wheel drive vehicles, and he invested in a wireless Internet company.

He is part owner of Granite Energy Inc., which owns hundreds of oil wells in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. He is building an 11,000-square-foot house in east Layton, which he had planned to live in but will soon put up for sale.

Other lucrative deals have fallen into his lap, but he has not been so eager to embrace them.

The World Wrestling Federation — then known by its initials as the WWF, and now called World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE — offered him $1.5 million a year shortly after he returned to the United States from Sydney. Gardner turned it down. He had a formal meeting with pro wrestling huckster Vince MaMahon but rebuffed his offers.

"Life is not about money," he says. "You can make money any way you want if you lower your standards. I don't believe in hurting people, even if it's fake. I don't want to portray that image."

As he speaks, Gardner's cell phone rings with another offer to fight, this one a match against Russia's Fedor Emelianenko in a mixed martial arts bout that would consist of, in Gardner's words, "full contact and pretty much no rules." Only eye-gouging, head-butting, biting and shots to the groin are specifically banned.

"Fedor has no weaknesses," says Gardner. "I watched him beat the hell out of a guy. (Mike) Tyson is a chump compared to Fedor."

Gardner has received several similar calls coaxing him to take the fight against Fedor. The money is good — $500,000 just to get in the ring — but Gardner says he probably won't accept because the object is to injure.

He did accept one fight. Four months after tearfully retiring from wrestling following his bronze-medal performance at the 2004 Summer Games, he competed in a mixed martial arts fight in Tokyo against Olympic judo champion Hidehiko Yoshida.

"I did it because it was champ against champ," says Gardner.

After the bout, he conceded that as he met Yoshida at center ring before their match, he wondered if it was too late to back out. For a man who says he has never been in an altercation, it was a frightening experience. It wasn't until after he received threats on his life after his Olympic triumph that he took six weeks of training in self-defense, which probably helped him defeat Yoshida in what aficionados considered a major upset. He reportedly collected $200,000 for his pains.

"After that fight, he told his mother he wouldn't do that anymore," says Reed Gardner.

From the outset, his parents and siblings urged him not to accept such fights or to wade into pro wrestling, even when the WWF was dangling $1 million in front of him.

"For a kid who never had 20 bucks in his life, it was a tough decision," says Reed Gardner. "But we told him the money is not worth getting your face beat off."

Ethical and moral considerations aside, Reed Gardner believes it would have been a mistake financially for his son to enter the seamy world of pro wrestling.

"If he had done that, it wouldn't have allowed him to do the things he's doing," he says. "When he won, this country needed someone who was a small-town farm kid who seemed to touch a lot of people. If he had done the WWF, the iron would be cold by now. He would be associated with those people."

The day Rulon Gardner returned from Sydney, he was met by Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic gymnast champion and queen of the 1984 Summer Olympics.

She told him to be careful how he handled his newfound celebrity.

"She knew what was in the future for him," says Reed Gardner. "She advised him. She told him to be careful who he signed as a manager and how he handled his money."

Overnight, he went from anonymity and per diems to fame and wealth. It was a strange new world for a young man who grew up milking cows.

Before the Olympics, he was living on an annual stipend of $9,000 from USA Wrestling, surviving largely on his wife Stacy's job as a teacher.

Then came those nine minutes on the mat in Sydney and he was the toast of America. He made the round of TV shows — Letterman, Leno, Conan, Oprah, the "Today", "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (where he won $125,000 — was this guy on a roll, or what?).

He did milk ads. He appeared on Capitol Hill. He met President Bush twice. He did a guest shot on "Nash Bridges." He went to the ESPYs. He took a bow at a Jazz game. He was invited twice to the Playboy Mansion but declined. And then he went on the road to make his fortune, and he's still there today. Try to leave a message on his cell phone and you'll likely be told that it's full.

The money and travels and celebrity have come with a steep price. He has been married and divorced three times, twice since winning the gold medal. He married while attending Ricks College, but the lifestyle and focus of a wrestler took its toll and they eventually divorced. His second marriage lasted four years (none of his marriages produced children), ending a year after the Sydney Games.

"People dream of something, but be careful what you dream for," he says. "I didn't dream this. I didn't expect it. But when you travel 300 days a year, when you're on the road that much and always gone and people want you to do stuff — I get three to four calls a day for charities — you have opportunities. After winning the gold, the stress took its toll. After I won, it changed everything. I went from my training and wrestling to nonstop traveling. In March of 2001, I was gone every day."

Gardner's brother Russell once told the Rocky Mountain News, "So many things happened so fast after the Olympics that there was no way of overcoming it. In 35 days, he spent about six hours at home. Not only that, he became frustrated and short (with people). I think both changed."

Gardner married a Utah nurse a month before the 2004 Athens Olympics, but they divorced after less than a year of marriage.

"No, I'm not lonely," Gardner says. "I'm happy. I have lots of friends."

While he says this he is perusing an Internet dating site for LDS singles and making occasional comments about their beauty.

The Gardners, Reed says, tell Rulon that if he's going to settle down with a family he better get to it. "Every member of the family told Rulon he was making a big mistake," says Reed Gardner of the divorces.

The Gardner siblings, like their parents, are salt-of-the-Earth people. Rollin has taken over the family farm. Diane teaches school in Evanston. Marcella is a nurse in Laramie. Evonne Henderson is married and lives in Iowa. Reynold is finishing a Ph.D. in Oregon and hopes to return to Afton to teach. Geraldine Ward is a cardiologist in Cheyenne. Russell teaches at the Afton middle school and owns and operates a convenience store in town.

"Rulon lives a different lifestyle than the rest of us," says Reed Gardner. "One thing I tell him is that he ought to get a real job and get up in the morning."

He thinks about this a moment. He is a man who oozes wisdom, the kind that is accrued while milking cows 730 times a year for half a century.

Reed Gardner continues, "There is so much pressure being a celebrity. He's not the same kid he used to be, and I wouldn't expect him to be. Being a celebrity would change anybody. Someday he's going to have to slow down. At one time I thought he would be a coach. But he is not pursuing it, because that iron is still hot and he's making his living traveling around giving speeches."

Rulon Gardner has attacked his life away from the mat with zeal. He snowmobiles, wakeboards, travels the world, rides his Harley. He still trains occasionally with the U.S. wrestling team and conducts wrestling clinics around the country, hoping to help prepare a new Olympic champion. He has nearly completed his schooling for a pilot's license, after which he will buy a plane and pilot himself to speaking events, saving himself time wasted in airports.

At times, he seems to possess reckless abandon. In 2002, he spent 17 hours in the Wyoming backcountry after his snowmobile dropped into a hidden lake. Gardner was soaked, and temperatures fell to minus 25 degrees.

Eventually, he lost most of a middle toe to frostbite, which has since melded into a neighbor toe — "It kind of grew over and made a little friend," is the way Gardner puts it.

A local doctor who assisted Gardner's birth once told his parents that their son was going to be accident prone, and he has seemed bound to prove him right. He once accidentally impaled himself on a hunting arrow and walked to the hospital. About 10 days before the 2004 U.S. wrestling championships, he T-boned his Harley into a car. He did a front somersault and popped right to his feet. He went to practice that afternoon. Two days later he dislocated his wrist in a pickup basketball game.

Many wondered why Gardner bothered to return to the Olympics in 2004, knowing he had a tough act to follow and his fortune was made.

"People ask me why I do so many things," he says.

"Because I can. I grew up squeezing (cow) teats all my life. I busted my butt so many years wrestling and training; now I enjoy life."

So, how long will Gardner be able to ride the Sydney gravy train?

"That's the ultimate question," he says. "I don't think it will ever dry out. But if there's a point I don't have financial needs, I'll do it free."

His father's advice notwithstanding, Gardner says he will never "get a real job." He plans to build several health clubs that offer the usual fitness amenities, plus wrestling clubs. He wants to continue to work with the national team and promote schools. He hopes to curtail his travel and speech commitments soon to devote more time to his health clubs and other things he's "invested in," as well as his personal life.

"I think of traveling as more days that I've lost of my life," he says.

But after seeing 49 states and 40 countries in his young life, Gardner is looking forward to coming home someday.

"Ultimately, my goal is to end up back in Wyoming to end up with my family."