Glenwood has firm grip on champion wrestler

Dennis Webb
GSPI News Editor

For Olympic wrestling gold medalist Rulon Gardner, visiting Glenwood Springs this week was a bit like coming home.

It also was like coming full circle.

Just over a year ago, everything was going Gardner’s way. A wrestler who had reached the top of his game, he upset Russian Alexander Karelin in one of the most memorable moments of the 2000 Summer Games, then won the world championships in December 2001.

He came to Glenwood Springs Feb. 2, 2002, to carry the Olympic Torch on its final Glenwood Springs leg as it headed to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

He won over local residents with his easygoing personality, and they won him over with their warm reception.

Less than two weeks later, the man who had it all nearly lost it all.

That Valentine’s Day, Gardner was a man all alone in the Wyoming backcountry, far from his fans, his snowmobile stuck in deep snow, fighting through a long night in sub-zero temperatures.

He was lucky to escape with his life; whether he could salvage his athletic career depended on how his frostbitten feet recovered.

Today, Gardner has his answer. Although he’s not 100 percent recovered, he’s wrestling well enough to have high hopes of winning the U.S.A. Wrestling Senior National Championship in May.

Seeking closure

It’s been a long road back to the mat, walked for a while with baby steps on tender toes. Along the way, Gardner often thought of Glenwood Springs.

Glenwood-area residents made sure of that by sending cards to his hospital room in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Glenwood was in Gardner’s mind when the community lost dozens of homes June 8 in the Coal Seam Fire.

“My prayers went out to Glenwood after the fire,” Gardner said during his visit Wednesday.

Then he mused about his deepening connection with Glenwood. He finds symbolism in how soon after his participation in the Torch Relay here he became injured, and in the ordeals he and Glenwood Springs have faced since then.

“I went through a real struggle last year, and Glenwood did too,” he said.

Gardner repeatedly used the word “closure” in describing his motives for returning to Glenwood this week. His feet feel better, he has restored the strength to his barrel-chested, 284-pound frame, and he’s wrestling with almost the kind of confidence he did when he was last able to jog through Glenwood Springs, torch in hand.

He also believes the city deserves some credit for his recovery, and he has long looked forward to returning to town to say thank-you for the encouragement he got.

He deeply appreciates the get-well cards he received from Glenwood, calling them “touching and inspiring.”

“You go through, you read the statements these people made, it’s so cool.

“I just wanted to thank all the great individuals who had me in their prayers and who thought about me and who wished me the best. I think that’s what makes America such a great place, is all the people who offer of themselves to help other people in times of need.”

Gardner was astounded that Glenwood-area residents Tom Boas and Stephanie Owston, accompanied by Post Independent staff writer Greg Masse, drove 1,200 miles round trip to deliver Glenwood’s package to him.

“It’s a 15-hour drive. I had three people giving 15 hours to give me this stuff. They could have mailed it, but they didn’t,” he said.

“I was just like, `Wow, why am I so lucky to get so many people who care about me?'”

A stranger no more

Before Feb. 2, 2002, Gardner didn’t know anybody in Glenwood Springs. He had no idea how he ended up being assigned to carry the torch here. But he found the people he met here to be similar to people in his rural mountain hometown of Afton, Wyo.

“It’s people with the same kind of upbringing and background,” he said.

So when he got a day off from practice this week, he decided it would be fun to spend the day here, reconnecting with acquaintances.

“It’s really cool to come back and to remember the times and to see some of the people,” he said.

He is especially fond of employees of Two Rivers Chevrolet, which helped sponsor the relay; and Colorado Mountain College and City Market, which were involved in the get-well card project.

Gardner said Glenwood residents have told him he can consider the city his second home. Ron Esch, owner of Two Rivers Chevrolet, believes Gardner has taken that advice to heart.

“He’s got a strong attachment to the folks in our community,” said Esch, who joined others at the dealership in taking Gardner out to lunch Wednesday at Tequila’s.

“He was always a giving, caring person, from when we first met him,” he said.

Esch is touched that Gardner has stayed in contact since the Torch Relay.

“I think we were lucky to have that particular individual represent us, because I don’t think it would happen with anybody else,” he said.

`It’s a miracle’

Gardner described this week’s visit as a chance to “come back and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

He took a soak in the Hot Springs Pool to recharge before resuming his training.

For a self-described “nine-toed wrestler,” Gardner is happy with his chances at nationals. He lost the middle toe on his right foot, and his toes on both feet remained scarred from the frostbite – as he readily reveals by baring his feet when asked about it. But he’s regained much of the mobility that is so important in wrestling.

“Coming back full circle is the important thing about it all. If you look where I started a year ago and where I am now, there’s so much improvement that I’ve made, that it’s a miracle.”

That is a second miracle for the man whose gold-medal Olympic upset is referred to as the Miracle on the Mat.

“When I started training back in September, my first competition, I felt like the potential was there and the dream was there. For me to come back and win national is the ultimate goal and I think I can accomplish it. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s why I want to wrestle, just to come back and get to that same ability as before.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been a person to look at obstacles and shy away from them.”

For Gardner, the goal of getting back on the mat also became a vehicle for simply getting well.

“If can go out and wrestle, that means I’ve healed 100 percent. I think wrestling was the best way of pushing it to heal.”

Gardner sees his struggles as no different from anyone else’s. In listening to Glenwood residents the day he carried the torch here, he heard about the town’s own challenges, its high points and low points.

“It’s just a community out striving to do its best, and that’s what we’re all doing,” he said.

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