Lost in the snow-covered Wyoming wilderness without a coat, Rulon Gardner fell into an icy creek, shivered through the black night, felt his feet grow numb from frostbite and confronted the inevitability of death.
Two and a half years later, Gardner wouldn't trade anything for the ordeal. Before it happened, the most unlikely star of the 2000 Olympics thought his life would go on forever, with each day unfolding more gloriously than the one before. On that February night, all he wanted was one day more.
Gardner was plucked out of the valley by a helicopter 15 hours after he'd gotten lost during a snowmobile excursion. His body temperature had plunged to 80 degrees, frigid enough to kill most people. His feet were white with frostbite. Four operations later, he had regained most of the feeling in his extremities, but the middle toe on his right foot had to be amputated.
Gardner recounted the harrowing experience in detail Monday, the day after he and the rest of the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team arrived in Athens for the 2004 Olympics. "The frostbite was something I'll never look back on and wish didn't happen because I learned so much that night -- about me, about the good Lord and about being here on this beautiful earth," Gardner said.
It's hard to say which is more stunning: Gardner's victory over the undefeated Aleksandr Karelin at the Sydney Olympics, which catapulted the unheralded dairy farmer to fame four years ago; or his ability to qualify for a second Olympiad despite losing a measure of his mobility and stability to frostbite.
Gardner has kept the amputated toe in a formaldehyde solution since. It is symbolic, he believes, of the challenges he has confronted since the accident. "What the toe represented was the years of struggle, the pain I went through, the recovery from a mistake that I made," Gardner said.
Gardner plans to retire from competitive wrestling after these Olympic Games. When he does, he will bury the amputated toe alongside his beloved dog, Bo, who was hit by a car and killed four years ago. "I'm going to put it to rest and move on with my life," Gardner said.
But first he has a gold medal to defend.
Karelin, who won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the super-heavyweight division, has retired. But that doesn't mean Gardner's task will be easy; Eastern Europe has plenty of worthy challengers left.
Gardner is drawing on his longtime foil, fellow American Dremiel Byers, for help. After Gardner defeated Byers to earn his spot on the 2004 Olympic team, Byers promised to accompany him to Athens to wrestle against him during his final weeks of preparation. Gardner responded by promising to give Byers his stipend from the U.S. Olympic committee and U.S wrestling officials if he wins a medal. If Gardner wins gold, he'll give Byers all of his USOC stipend, more than $30,000. It's both a gesture of thanks and an insurance policy of sorts that Byers will push him as hard as possible.
"That way I know he's motivated to beat me," Gardner said. "Last week, he threw me in a competition practice match. It infuriated me. I'm still mad from it. That's what I expect out of him -- to hold nothing back. If I don't show an American wrestling heavyweight is the best, I think it's going to show us as being weak, and he doesn't want that and I don't want that."