January 23, 2011
Weight: 247.3 pounds
Overweight by 71.3 pounds
What does inspiration mean in sports? Strip down the word. Remove its jewelry. I was there the night Derek Jeter hit the home run at Yankee Stadium while smoke rose from Ground Zero, and the crowd sang “New York, New York,” again and again long after the game ended, as if to shout “We’re still here!” And it felt … inspiring.
But what does that mean? What is inspiration? I was there the night Mario Chalmers hit a long jump shot, the night Usain Bolt disappeared into a blur, the day Tiger Woods chipped in on the 16th green at Augusta. I was there when Kerri Strug landed on one leg, when Pete Sampras vomited and won, when David Tyree pressed the football against his helmet, when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal. Inspiring? Certainly. All of it.
Except … these bits of inspiration are wrapped in a minor chord. Inspiration in these cases means to be animated with a powerful emotion. I felt chills. I was overcome by wonder. My feelings soared. I wanted to stand and shout. That’s inspiration, sure, but there’s another meaning of inspiration, a bigger meaning. Sometimes, at its grandest, inspiration actually inspires us — to do something, to be something, to reach for something bigger and deeper and higher within ourselves.
How often does real inspiration happen in sports?
January 28, 2011
Weight: 246.6 pounds
Every American journalist had gone to see the baseball gold medal match. Well, OK, not EVERY one, but almost, and you could not blame them. This was the 2000 Olympics. The United States was playing Cuba for gold, and it was a matchup filled with drama and political intrigue. The American team was managed by that quote machine Tommy Lasorda. Writing off that game, yes, that was the percentage play. The Olympics are this vast and thorny thing, and every minute so many things happen at once — lifelong goals come true, dreams crash, breathtaking stories unfold from all over the world — and as a reporter you are paralyzed by choices. The Olympic events are a maze of mirrors, a long hallway of unmarked doors. The baseball gold medal game was the smart choice because that was a guaranteed story, no matter which way it went. Lasorda figured to say something interesting. That game was the sure thing.
I never much liked sure things. That’s why I went with my friend Chuck to the Greco-Wrestling arena to see a legend we had never heard of named Aleksandr Karelin. That’s another thing about the Olympics — you are constantly learning about new legends. In 1996, Chuck and I were eating at a French restaurant in downtown Atlanta when suddenly everyone in the place stood and cheered wildly. We looked to the front of the restaurant to see a proud and triumphant man who did not look familiar in any way. That was Jean Galfione of France; he had won the gold medal in the pole vault. He was a big deal in his world.
Karelin was as big a deal as there was in his world. He had won three Olympic gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling and was all but certain to win a fourth that night. He had allowed one point in those four Olympic competitions, and though I did not understand the rules of Greco-Roman wrestling well enough to know how wrestlers scored points, the little statistical fact still boggled the mind. Karelin was from Russia, and according to his biography he wrote poetry, was involved politically and had (at least once) carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs. There are a billion stories in the naked city that I know absolutely nothing about, and I love stumbling on to the most amazing of them. This was one of those amazing stories.
“So you came to write about Karelin,” Rulon Gardner is saying. He sits with his back to the pool at the Biggest Loser Ranch, and he is leaning back so that the sun can warm and tan his face.
“Yeah,” I say. “I went to write about Karelin.”
“Can’t blame you, the guy was a beast” Gardner says, as he stares up at the sun.
* * *
Weight: 239.2 pounds
You do not have to appreciate boxing at all to feel its brutality and violence and blinding speed. Greco-Roman Wrestling is not like boxing. It is a sport of leverage and strength and balance, and decisive moves are often as subtle as the pauses at stop signs on quiet streets. The fury is masked, packaged in styrofoam popcorn, and so to my virgin eye the greatest sporting event I ever saw looked like two men trying to figure out how to solve an argument. They grabbed at each other and pushed each other and pulled at each other and none of it made any visual sense. For a long time, the scoreboard showed Karelin 0, Gardner 0, which suggested that neither man was winning.
Karelin looked magnificent. He was a muscle on muscle, exactly how you would draw him in the comic book, and throughout his career he had won matches before they began. They called him “The Russian Bear” and they called him “Alexander the Great,” and, under either name, they feared him. “I train every day in my life as they never trained a day in theirs,” Karelin said, and nobody doubted this. Few thought of beating him. He had not lost an international match in 10 years, and in 1992 and 1996 his Olympic gold medal opponents essentially gave up during the match.
“When you wrestled Karelin, you basically just didn’t want him to embarrass you or hurt you by picking you up and throwing you,” Rulon Gardner says. Rulon did not look magnificent. He looked, as he has often described himself, “like a pudgeball.” The first time he and Karelin wrestled, Alexander the Great lifted him, threw him and broke two vertebrae in his neck. (“What it did,” Rulon said when asked if he learned anything from the first match, “was frighten me”). Just a few weeks before the Olympics, Karelin had been ringside to watch the No. 2 Russian wrestler throw Rulon Gardner. There was no question that Karelin would win gold. Few times in the history of sport was one man so heavily favored over another. In a strange new-world twist, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in the crowd and prepared to honor a Russian for destroying an American.
Only, the scoreboard showed 0-0 for a long time. I had no sense that this score mattered. I did not know how long a Greco-Roman wrestling match lasted. I did not know how quickly or how often points were scored. I tried to follow the mesmerizing tugging and shoving between two large men in Australia while a packed house of fans screamed like mad, but it was like trying to follow a conversation in a language I did not understand. The noise roared every second of the match, but in the second period there was an awkward exchange between the wrestlers and suddenly the sound in the arena flickered — a group gasp — and then the cheering spiked loud enough to set ears ringing.
I looked at the scoreboard.
Rulon Gardner led the match 1-0.
* * *
Weight: 242.6 pounds
What does inspiration mean in sport? Can watching Michael Jordan rise and dunk lift us all just a little higher? Can seeing Marshawn Lynch refuse to go down make us slightly more invincible? When Secretariat pulls away does that make us a little bit faster and more brilliant in the stretch?
“The problem,” Rulon Gardner is saying, “is that calories are cheap. Have you thought about that?”
I had not thought of that
“They’re cheap. And they are everywhere. Think about wherever you go. What do you see? Calories. And you don’t need a lot of money to get them. For 10 bucks you could get five or seven or nine thousand calories. Well, I’ve got ten bucks. I might not have anything else. But I’ve got 10 bucks, you know what I mean?”
I knew what he meant.
Rulon Gardner used to look into the mirror, and he says, “I didn’t see what I saw.” He knew he had gained weight after his wrestling days. He knew it, but didn’t KNOW it. His sister, a cardiologist, told him that if he did not shape up he would die soon. His friends told him that when he slept, his snores sounded like gasps, like he was being strangled. He would get winded walking down a hallway.
All the while, he would look in the mirror and he would see … yesterdays. Beautiful yesterdays. He would see himself as an athlete. He would hear the cheers. He would feel invincible. How many times in his life had he cheated death? Even Rulon Gardner can’t say for sure — it depends on how close to death you are talking about. He walked away from a motorcycle crash. He swam away from a plane crash. He survived a night in the Wyoming wild after a snowmobile accident — the pain from the cold was so excruciating that after a while he took solace in it. “As long as I hurt,” he told himself, “I am alive.”
“I didn’t think I could die,” he says. “You know what I mean?”
I knew what he meant.
* * *
Weight: 237.4 pounds
When Rulon Gardner scored his point against Karelin, I waited for something to happen. I did not know what. I guess part of me expected an angry Karelin to pick up Gardner and fold him into origami shapes. The more reasonable part of me expected only a little less. I knew something spectacular would happen.
Only … nothing happened. Or anyway, it looked like nothing. Karelin attacked, and Gardner defended, Karelin attacked again, and Gardner defended. And the scoreboard stayed frozen, 1-0, with the sound in the arena rising with each passing second. When the scoreboard clock ticked down toward 0:00, I did not know if it was the end of the match or the end of a period (a quarter)?
For almost six minutes, Rulon Gardner fought off the greatest Greco Roman wrestler in the world, probably the greatest who ever lived, and it is probably the most singular athletic achievement I have ever seen up close, and it looked like absolutely nothing. It was thrust and parry, two huge men dancing a tango. It was mesmerizing just the same.
“Did I think I could beat him?” Rulon is saying, and we are back on the Biggest Loser Ranch in the sunshine. “No. I didn’t.”
“But there was no place I was unwilling to go to beat him. I was willing to bring up every memory, every thing I went through on the farm, every person who ever told me I couldn’t do it. I was willing to go places he could not go. … And I heard this voice in my head that said: ‘Brother, you’ve still got a long way to go.'”
With four seconds left in the match, Alexander the Great, The Russian Bear, Aleksandr Karelin bowed his head. He reached out his hand to Rulon Gardner. He conceded to the better man.
“He mumbled something in Russian at the end,” Rulon Gardner said a few minutes after the match. “I think it was ‘I give up.'”
The arena was electric with sound.
* * *
Weight: 233.4 pounds
Sportswriters, all of us, will be asked at least a thousand times in our lives if we still root during games. The stock answer is: “Yes, but I don’t root for teams. I root for the story.” Sometimes, the more world weary among us — maybe the more honest — will say: “I root for me.” These two answers really mean the same things — rooting for the story, and rooting for ourselves is all tied together. Sportswriters root for short baseball games. Sportswriters root for story lines to emerge early enough to lengthen the writing time. Sportswriters root for good people — or at least accommodating ones — and interesting angles and clear narratives and dissolved traffic and bowl games in San Diego. Sportswriters root hard against U.S. Open playoffs. The loudest cheer I ever heard in a press section happened the day Payne Stewart sunk a long putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 to win the U.S. Open. I’m sure some were happy for the veteran Stewart winning his second Open. Most were happy that they could go home.
But this is all too cynical because deep down, every sportswriter worth his or her salt does root for the moment, for the half-court shot to drop, for the Hail Mary pass to be caught for an instant in time that leaps out of its bearings and becomes timeless.
When we sat in the press conference room, after Rulon Gardner defeated Aleksandr Karelin, we thought that this might be one of those moments. Of course, we didn’t know, for sure. America is so rich with brilliant athletes and grand achievements that magical stories often disappear into the ether. One of the greatest sporting events I ever saw happened when a weightlifter nicknamed Pocket Hercules won Olympic gold. I wrote my heart out. Nobody seemed to notice.
Rulon Gardner sat on the podium behind a microphone, and the first question was the simple one: Did he ever imagine that he would beat the unbeatable Karelin?
And he began talking about how Karelin was tough to move, but he was not as tough to move as the cows on the dairy farm in Wyoming … though Rulon conceded that Karelin was a bit quicker.
That’s when we sportswriters knew for sure that we had our moment. When you have an athlete talking about wrestling cows on the farm, you have a winner. And this story was the ultimate winner. This was a story that had no end, the onion with infinite layers. He had grown up on a dairy farm near Afton, Wyoming, the youngest of nine. When his mother, Virginia, tried to explain to us the location of Afton, she did so by saying that Wilford Brimley owned land out there. “You know,” she said, “that Quaker Oats guy.” Rulon split his childhood days between the painful drudgery of farm life and various near-death experiences. He fell out of a truck. He fell into a baler. He was pierced by an arrow.
He played sports to escape … and he wanted to escape everything. He found learning difficult because of a learning disability that wasn’t identified until much later. He worked until late in the night on the farm because that was the life he was born into. People called him Fatso because this was the body he was given. What Rulon Gardner had, though, was a sharper mind that anyone gave him credit for and a burning tenacity to compete that people kept missing most of his life.
“Did you ever think your son had something like this in him?” we asked Virginia that day in Australia.
“Well,” she said, “I knew he was strong the first time I saw him carry around four milk buckets.”
Stop. This was the sort of detail that just kept flying at us writers again and again all night long. Usually, a sportswriter will kill for just ONE of these, just one mother’s quote about carrying milk buckets, just one near death experience, just one small town boy pulling off the upset of the ages. But with Rulon Gardner the absurdly wonderful and American stories kept coming. When I called the radio station in Afton, the on-air disc jockey put me on hold because at that moment he was reading the birthdays … all of the birthdays in town. When we asked Rulon Gardner what inspired him, he told us about the T-shirt he wore as he walked on to the mat, and how it was signed by Richard Petty.
When I started to write the story, my head swimming with too much detail already, a man walked up to me. The man turned out to be Rulon Gardner’s father, Reed. He was more or less the last person I wanted to see.
“Congratulations Mr. Gardner,” I said. “I can only imagine how proud you are.”
“Sure am,” he said. “You know I almost didn’t make it out here.”
I did not want to ask. I knew I shouldn’t ask. I asked. “Why’s that, Mr. Gardner?”
“Well, we don’t have enough money, and the town was kind enough to send my wife but there wasn’t enough to send me. So I had to go to the Lincoln County Fair to sell my famous Polish Sausage Stew.”
And that was it. That was the breaking point. He then began talking about Korea, but I had already fallen into a daze, an overdose of sports goodness, and while I tried to actually write the words about the most wonderful sporting event I had ever seen, the only thought that pounded through my head was: “I really didn’t need that stew.”
* * *
Weight: 230.4 pounds
Rulon Gardner saw himself on television, and that’s when he understood. He sat on the edge of his bed in a hotel room in Oklahoma, and he stared at the television. On it, he was holding a bust of himself. He had just been inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Only, nothing on the screen made sense to him. The bust did not look like him. And the man holding the bust did not look like him either. The bust looked like a younger man, a faint memory. The man holding the bust looked like he weighed 500 pounds.
Everything in his brain told him to look away. “The mind has a great way of getting you to not face reality,” Rulon says. He is standing inside the huge training room at The Biggest Loser Ranch, and it is warm outside but cold in here. Rulon is showing how the equipment works. He knows this equipment well because he has opened a large gym in Utah.
“I wanted to look away but I made myself look,” he says. “And it was hard. My mind was telling me, ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s not really you. You are an Olympian. You’re an athlete. That’s not you.’ But I kept looking. Then, it came back, like on a news loop so I saw myself again. And it came back again. I know I saw it two or three times at least.
“That’s when it hit me. And it hit me hard, man. That was me.”
When he stepped on a scale, for the first time since his wrestling days, he maxed out the 435-pounds. When he had won a bronze medal in 2004 — this after his near-fatal night in the Wyoming wild when he saw a vision of his dead brother and Jesus and had a toe amputated for frostbite — he weighed 260 pounds.
“I always said that I’ve never lied to myself,” he says. “When I went into the hospital with frostbite, they wanted to give me pain killers. But I told them I didn’t want that. They said, ‘Don’t you hurt?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I hurt. I hurt a lot. But there’s a reason I hurt. The reason is because I was stupid. This pain is telling me something.
“I had lied to myself again and again as I was getting bigger and bigger. I told myself I could handle it. I told myself it wasn’t that bad. I told myself that I could work off the weight any time I wanted. And then, one day, I was just staring at that television …”
He could only think of one way to save himself. Rulon Gardner lives big. It’s the only way he knows how to live. He has achieved extraordinary things, and endured extraordinary pain, and overcome extraordinary obstacles. The only way he knew to lose the weight and to find himself was to find the brightest lights and stand in them. He called a friend and asked: “Can you get me on The Biggest Loser?”
The friend could not. But there were tryouts going on in Salt Lake City. And so he showed up. He made it past the first round of tryouts. He made it past the second. He made videos explaining himself. He did countless interviews, bearing a little more of his soul each time. People seemed convinced that he wanted on the show to regain some lost glory, to be back in the spotlight, and Rulon Gardner found it hard to convince them that without the show, without the pressure surrounding it, without immersing himself in it, he had no chance.
“I need help,” he shouted when it seemed like he was going to be sent home.
* * *
Weight: 225.2 pounds
“I feel human again,” Rulon Gardner says.
He has lost a lot of weight, 139 pounds going into Tuesday night’s episode, and though he still wants to lose a lot more, though he still has hopes of winning The Biggest Loser, he now looks a lot like the man who beat Karelin that night almost eleven years ago in Sydney. He climbs mountains. He can burn 1,000 or more calories on the treadmill. He can hit the heavy bag for fifteen rounds.
He talks about his wife, Kamie, and how much he loves her, and how in his worst moments he simply could not believe she loved him back. She said she loved him again and again, but he did not believe her, could not believe her, because even though his eyes fooled him, and even though his mind fooled him, his heart understood that he weighed 470 pounds, and he was a slave to two 2 a.m. Big Mac Meals and multiple orders of three candy bars for a dollar. He had won over the world as an athlete. That, he believed, was the best part of himself. And it was gone.
“Look at me,” he says, and he runs on the treadmill, and he’s not breathing hard, and he’s saying, “I’m back. I’m really back.” Rulon Gardner is 39 years old, a two-time Olympic medalist, a man who pulled off one of the greatest individual sports upsets of modern times. And here he is, running on a treadmill, proud to have his breath back, proud to be alive again.
“Anyone can do this, man,” he is saying, and he is looking at me. I tell him a little story about the day I saw him beat the unbeatable Karelin. When the match ended, when my story was written, I was still high from the event. My friend Chuck and I and a woman reporter we had just met named Juliet wandered into the Australian night, and we were giddy, and we heard people singing and cheering (we always heard people singing and cheering in Australia) and we told each other that we would never see anything like what we had just seen.
Rulon Gardner nodded. “Have you?” he asked.
I said: “Not yet.”
* * *
What does inspiration mean in sports? I’ve been writing about it for more than 20 years, and I don’t really know. I do think that real inspiration exists. It’s rare. But it exists. I think Lance Armstrong’s recovery from cancer inspired others to fight the disease harder. I think Doug Flutie’s Heisman Trophy and Dustin Pedroia’s MVP award inspired people who felt too small to believe in bigger things. I think Seabiscuit inspires people to come back. I think Joe Paterno inspires people to keep going.
The dates and weights listed above, as you no doubt knew, are not Rulon Gardner’s. They are mine. I met with him toward the end of January, and I watched him work, and I listened to him talk, and I remembered a remarkable night in Sydney when he went to those places no one else was willing to go and defeated Aleksander Karelin.
“You know what I really learned,” Rulon Gardner told me. “You can’t predict it. You just have to give everything you have and find out what you have inside.”
What does inspiration mean in sports? Rulon Gardner is right. You can’t predict it.
I stepped on a scale this morning. I weighed 218.6 pounds. I heard cheering in my head. And I heard a voice say: “Brother, you’ve still got a long way to go.”