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Rulon Gardner owns one of the most triumphant Olympic moments in recent history, but that’s only a chapter in his journey of perseverance.
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the Greco-Roman wrestler shocked the world when he toppled Russian Aleksandr Karelin, who had been unbeaten for 13 years, to claim gold. Gardner followed it up with a world title a year later, becoming the first American Greco-Roman wrestler to win Olympic and world championship gold.
Two years after his Olympic victory, Gardner almost lost his life. While snowmobiling with a group of friends in his home state of Wyoming, Gardner became separated from the group and ended up falling into a freezing-cold river. Gardner was rescued 18 hours later, suffering from extreme frostbite and hypothermia. Doctors initially told Gardner that he would likely lose both of his feet. In the end, though, only one toe had to be amputated.
Amazingly, Gardner was able to fully recover and compete at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he won bronze. He then left his shoes on the mat, signaling his retirement from the sport.
[Slideshow: Events Team USA has never won at Summer Olympics]
Gardner suffered another near-death experience in winter 2007, when a small aircraft he and two others were in crashed into Utah’s Lake Powell. Gardner and the two other passengers swam over an hour through 43-degree waters to reach shore. The three were rescued the following morning with no major injuries.
Today, Gardner uses his story to inspire others as a motivational speaker. He also works as a financial advisor, helping people prepare for life after retirement.