Olympic Wrestling Gold Medalist Rulon Gardner Isn’t Done Yet
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer of 2024. In this edition of the series, a special historic lookback for one of North Dakota’s rarely discussed Olympic champions.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, American wrestler Rulon Gardner stunned the world. Gardner was competing in the Greco-Roman heavyweight final against Aleksandr Karelin, the defending champion from Russia. Karelin had won gold at the past three Olympics: Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992, and Atlanta in 1996. But in 2000, Karelin fell short. Gardner prevailed, winning gold and instantly becoming a legend.
Gardner, who grew up as the youngest of nine children on a dairy farm in Wyoming, started wrestling when he was just six years old. His hometown hosted a wrestling camp each year, kickstarting his interest in the sport. Gardner continued wrestling through junior high and college, and after his big upset in 2000, returned to the Olympics in 2004 seeking to defend his title. Although he wasn’t able to clinch another gold at the Athens Games, he did take home another medal – this time, bronze.
And then, Gardner retired.
Perhaps surprisingly, wrestling is the sport where the U.S. has won its third highest number of Olympic medals, behind track & field and swimming. And yet, for all of these medals, Gardner’s 2000 win was the last time an American took home gold in Greco-Roman wrestling (as opposed to freestyle, in which the U.S. has had much more recent success). But the future of American wrestling is bright, thanks in part to two young athletes who have their own connections to Gardner himself.
On the same day that Gardner made magic happen in the 2000 event that’s now known as “The Miracle on the Mat,” a baby was born who would go on to become a wrestling star. His name? Cohlton Schultz. Last month, Schultz competed for the United States at the World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. It was his seventh time at this tournament, and he’s only 23.
Another American wrestler who made this year’s world team, Mason Parris, grew up with a signed Gardner poster in his bedroom. While Gardner made his mark in the Greco-Roman style, Parris competes in freestyle. These two styles are similar; the primary difference is in which part of the body competitors are allowed to attack. In Greco-Roman, wrestlers have to keep their holds on opponents above the waist, while in freestyle, competitors can target the legs. The two forms of wrestling have a long history at the Olympics, with men contesting both since the 1896 Games in Athens. (And even before its induction into the modern Olympics, wrestling was contested at the ancient Olympics starting in 708 BC – making it one of the oldest Olympic sports.)
The two-and-a-half decades since Sydney have been complicated for the Olympic champion. He’s faced two near-death experiences (the first in 2002, during a snowmobiling accident in which he developed hypothermia and had to have a toe on his right foot amputated, and the second in 2007, when he crashed an airplane into Lake Powell, Utah and developed hypothermia for the second time); published a memoir called Never Stop Pushing: My Life from a Wyoming Farm to the Olympic Medals Stand; and lost 173 pounds as part of NBC’s reality show The Biggest Loser.
These days, Gardner lives in Utah and works as an insurance agent while also coaching wrestling at Herriman High School. As for his own wrestling career, Gardner might be starting a new chapter. In April 2023, at age 51, he tried to compete in the Greco-Roman heavyweight division at the U.S. Open, but was over the weight cut-off.
“I missed the weigh-ins by 15 pounds, but, being 51 years old, I talked to my sister, who’s a cardiologist,” Gardner told Flowrestling at the time. “She was like, ‘Rulon, there’s a chance that you could die tonight.’ It’s like, you know what, wrestling is important, but it’s not worth taking my life for. I’ve gotten healthy. I’m back to wrestling, back to training and I’m going to continue to compete.”
Those competition plans include the 2024 Olympic Trials next April, according to Gardner. While the next generation of American Greco-Roman wrestlers work towards their first Games, they’ll have the Wyoming native’s success on the global stage in mind. No stranger to a comeback, this could be Gardner’s best one yet.