(Eleven years ago, Olympic gold-medal wrestler Rulon Gardner became stranded while snowmobiling in the Rocky Mountains. All he wore for warmth was a fleece. He spent the night alone in the mountains and barely survived. In honor of that anniversary, and his recent bold statements in defense of Olympic wrestling, I thought I'd re-run this column from February 2007.)
If you think about it, when you’ve got to look death in the face, Rulon Gardner’s the guy you want to have standing beside you.
I met him last week.
A giant, hulking, smiling bear of a man, an Olympic gold medalist and Star Valley boy. The son of pioneers and a product of the media age. He is the kid who never grew up, a Paul Bunyon type with all the excitement and enthusiasm of a Cub Scout on his first campout.
There was some Russian legend and the American kid without a chance in the world ended his career. It was a Greco-Roman arse whooping and the ranch boy with the cauliflower ear and the toothy grin ended it with his arms in the air.
That’s Rulon Gardner.
When you pose for a picture he puts you in a headlock, if he’s feeling playful he lifts you in the air – with one arm. He doesn’t have any airs, he’s everybody’s friend, and he leaves a crowd of charmed people every time he exits a room.
That’s the man I met.
The man who was short a toe from a snowmobile debacle a few years back in which he spent the night wearing jeans and a fleece as the temperature fell some 50 degrees below freezing. He fought to stay alive through the night and before dawn he was visited by his dead brother and by Jesus.
Word was that he used to keep the frostbitten toe in a glass jar to show to people.
This is the man who, with a broadhead buried in him from a hunting accident -- as an 8-year-old boy -- walked into town and on to the hospital.
This is the man who, a couple of years ago, broadsided a car on his motorcycle, was thrown tumbling over the roof of the vehicle and landed on the far side on his feet.
This is the man you want beside you when the crap hits the fan. Rulon Gardner knows about fear and suffering and strength. He knows about pushing on when others would lay down and die.
And so it was that Randy and Leslie Brooks had a guardian angel along Saturday morning when they crashed their plane into Lake Powell.
Randy was at the controls and was hoping to sell the plane to Rulon Gardner. They had visited Randy’s houseboat at Bullfrog and had just taken off for the return flight to Salt Lake. Swooping down low above the broad water of the lake, Randy got carelessly close to the surface, caught a wheel, and slammed the bird into the drink. It was slam, slam, slam and sink, from 150 miles an hour to a standstill in a moment’s calamity, with all three men scrambling for the door before the plane took them to the bottom.
They wore jeans and t-shirts and the water was 44 degrees. The fastest of them made it to shore an hour later. That was Leslie. His brother crawled up onto the stone 15 minutes later.
They presumed Rulon Gardner was dead, the big man unable to endure the long swim through the frigid water. But an hour and a half after the plane went down, Rulon backstroked himself to solid ground.
And there they were, soaked to the bone, outdoors, in February, 25 miles up the lake from the marina and 30 miles overland to the nearest road.
That was Saturday and that was when the hypothermia began to settle in. Rulon Gardner recognized it in the Brooks brothers and pulled them to their feet and made them walk around. No one knows what transpired in the final hours of daylight, what they thought or said or feared. All we know is that they prayed together and huddled together and that in the night the temperature fell to 20 degrees.
And this time Rulon Gardner didn’t face a frigid night alone. He faced it with two men who he held against his massive chest to give them warmth. We don’t know what he told them, but we do know that he had been through worse and had come out alive. For a man who now gives motivational speeches for a living, the topic and the intent were clear.
And Randy and Leslie Brooks had an angel to lead them through the night. A man who knew what it was to face death and to persevere through. A man who had known colder than this and lived. A man who could protect and advise them. Rulon Gardner was the youngest of the three, but he’d lived more life.
And when Sunday dawned all three men were still alive. Leslie had frostbite and they all had chilblains, but they were alive. And when a fisherman in the wrong place passed on the lake, their frantic waving and jumping brought help.
And 24 hours later Rulon Gardner was on his way to Boston to keep a speaking engagement.
Who knows why things happen the way they do. Who knows why Rulon Gardner got lost on that snowmobile those years ago. Who knows why Rulon Gardner was really in that plane on Saturday morning. Who knows why one man can so consistently cheat death.
But my theory is that God is in it.
Randy and Leslie Brooks had a guardian angel the other night – a big burly fellow with a toothy grin and a gold medal. A man with an uncanny knack for staying alive.
And now, an uncanny knack for keeping others alive.