Recovery from injuries may be in the cards for Gardner
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – The big smile on Rulon Gardner’s face said it all.
“This is awesome,” the Olympic gold medal wrestler said as Tom Boas and Stephanie Owston hand-delivered a large pile of oversized cards, gifts and chocolates from Glenwood Springs to Gardner’s Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center room.
Idaho Falls is three hours north of Salt Lake City. Just after midnight Sunday, Owston and Boas, accompanied by this reporter, embarked on a 1,200-mile round-trip journey there to deliver the 14 giant-size get-well cards signed by hundreds of Glenwood Springs area residents.
“He was in awe, he had a big grin from ear to ear,” Owston said. “I think at that point he realized just how much he touched Glenwood Springs.”
Gardner served as a celebrity torchbearer when the Olympic Torch Relay came through Glenwood Springs Feb. 2. He was recently injured when he became stranded in the Wyoming backcountry overnight.
The cards were printed up last week by the city of Glenwood Springs and by students at CMC, then put on display Saturday at Safeway and City Market, where people from the area were able to sign them. Students from the college manned booths all day, imploring customers to sign the cards. Still others sent chocolates and smaller cards of their own wishing Gardner a speedy recovery.
At first, Gardner, 30, didn’t know what to say, but after he composed himself, he expressed deep appreciation for the efforts.
“To all my friends in Glenwood Springs, thank you for all the love and support. It sort of makes me feel like I’ve touched your lives like you’ve touched mine. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Gardner said.
Gardner became lost while snowmobiling in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in southwest Wyoming Feb. 14 and has been in the Idaho Falls hospital ever since. He is being treated for severe frostbite to his toes.
Because of his generous and easy manner, he became an instant crowd favorite in Glenwood Springs when he ran the last leg of the relay through town.
He looked great on Sunday – at one point even showing off the gold medal he won in the 2000 Summer Olympics – and is slated to be released from the hospital on Thursday.
Owston, who works as coordinator of student activities at Colorado Mountain College, said Gardner was in extremely good spirits.
“It was just amazing to see that no matter where he was, whether it was in the Community Center or in his hospital bed – even with people he only met once – he was just as kind and generous in both situations,” she said.
Gardner shared frightening descriptions of his harrowing ordeal out in the bleak and frigid Wyoming backcountry, and played a videotape showing footage of the area where he was lost, then eventually found.
The video showed the tracks from his snowmobile, visually telling the story of where he went to try and escape.
“It was so hard to walk, it took 15 to 20 minutes to walk 15 to 20 yards,” Gardner said, adding that the snow was so deep it was easier to walk on the iced-over edge of the river than through the feet-deep snow.
The lip above the bank of the river was too steep for him to ride out, so Gardner followed the water down, jumping from island to island in an attempt to find an easier exit point. Finally his snowmobile became stuck.
“My sled weighs 800 pounds and I had to pull the nose out myself to free it,” he said.
At one point, Gardner thought it was about 4:30 a.m. and the sun would soon be rising. But when he checked what time it was, he was alarmed to find it was only 12:30 a.m.
He rested in uncomfortable positions so he wouldn’t fall asleep because he knew that would have meant certain death.
Later in the morning, he was spotted by a plane, which dropped him food wrapped in a jacket, but the combination of its distance and his exhaustion kept him from retrieving it.
When a helicopter finally landed around 9:15 the morning after he became lost, the pilot feared the worst, Gardner said.
“They suspected I might be dead,” he said.
Doctors have been concerned about what impacts his injuries might have on his athletic career. While Gardner declined to give specifics on his rehabilitation, he said he has been lifting weights at the hospital and expressed confidence that he would wrestle again. He said he plans to compete in the wrestling world championships in June.
His immediate plans include giving a speech in Washington this weekend and then one in Denver. The speeches are of a motivational nature and have nothing to do with his wintry ordeal.
He will be in a wheelchair at least for the Washington event, but hopes to be walking soon.
Boas, general manager for Sodexho Campus Services – the company that sponsored the trek – said the 36-hour whirlwind trip was worth it.
“We asked him if we should set (the cards) up, but he wanted everything stacked on his lap so he could go through them,” Boas said. “He was like a little kid at Christmastime with all that stuff.”
Gardner also specifically said hi to his friends at Two Rivers Chevrolet and thanked Glenwood Springs city clerk Robin Clemons for the chocolates she provided, as well as thanking everyone else who was involved.
Gardner’s mother, Virginia, also came to visit him on Sunday and described her son’s indomitable spirit.
“It’s hard to keep him in one place for very long. He just wants to go and get out,” she said.
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