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Trip to Oklahoma changed Rulon Gardner's life

Olympic gold medalist is healthy and thinking about making a wrestling comeback.
by Jenni Carlson Published: June 9, 2011

Rulon Gardner last came to Oklahoma a year ago this week.

The trip changed his life.

When he traveled to our fair state last summer to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, he was a celebrated champion, an Olympic gold medalist and a face of his sport for the past decade.

He was also a man with a weight problem.

“A few things happened between here and there,” Gardner said, chuckling.

There was a stint on “The Biggest Loser,” a loss of nearly 200 pounds and a twist that might be too much of a fairy tale even for television.

Maybe you see him as a reality TV bad guy. Maybe you think less of him for leaving the show and not coming back for the finale. But on the weekend that Gardner has returned to Oklahoma for the Hall of Fame inductions in Stillwater and the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City, perhaps there is a different perspective.

Gardner is an example of what the body can do if the mind is willing.

Only a year ago, his health was spiraling out of control. Gardner has always been a big guy, a farm boy from Wyoming who became a barrel-chested heavyweight wrestler, but in the six years since his retirement, he had become morbidly obese. His family had encouraged him to lose weight. His doctor had done the same.

Gardner didn't think there was any problem.

But at last year's induction, the sight of Gardner shocked Hall of Fame director Lee Roy Smith. His concern was so great that he was compelled to say something.

“He could definitely see that I was ballooning out of control,” Gardner said.

Smith encouraged him to think about going on “The Biggest Loser”. The weight loss seen on the NBC show was great, and with the competitive aspect of the show, Gardner seemed a perfect candidate.

Gardner said he would think about it, yet after the induction dinner, he went out for fast food and took it back to his hotel room.

Then, he saw himself on TV.

A local station had covered the induction and included footage of him. Gardner saw a man pushing 500 pounds on the screen, but he hardly recognized that it was a picture of him.

“I need to make some changes,” he thought.

He called USA Wrestling, which put him in contact with NBC and “The Biggest Loser” casting department. But show executives didn't exactly jump at the opportunity to cast a former Olympic champion. They wanted him to try out like everyone else.

Gardner did and was among the 22 contestants chosen for Season 11.

His opening weight was 474 pounds.

Over the next five-plus months, he lost 185 pounds. He jogged and sweated. He jumped and strained. While some of his words and his deeds didn't make him the most lovable contestant on the show, he still became the favorite to win the $250,000 grand prize.

Then at the end of the show in Week 17, he stepped onto the scale and said he was leaving the ranch.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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