In the opening scene of the Olympic Channel’s new documentary film, Rulon, the titular character, a hulking figure, hangs his gold medal around the neck of a middle-aged man outside a hotel ballroom in Chicago. The two smile for a photo. Once – when he was 200lbs lighter and sporting a singlet – Rulon Gardner was the face of a Got Milk? ad, a sheepishly smiling America hero, and as he moves on from that photo op to deliver a speech at a dairy conference, Gardner appears acutely aware of the contrast between that version of himself and this one. “I’m not as famous as I used to be,” the two-time Olympian says in a voiceover, “but eventually I’m going to get to where I want to be.”
Rulon catches up with the Greco-Roman wrestler at a time of transition. He’s 48 years old, alone, in the second major weight-loss battle of his life and searching for purpose. Over an hour and a half, the documentary tells his life story, and viewers will learn Gardner is no stranger to living in a state of flux. He’s been the misfit son of a farmer, a star wrestler, an underdog, a champion, an invalid, a daredevil, obese, one of the Biggest Losers. The film takes viewers through that full arc, dropping them in the present where Gardner is, as always, working to become something else.
In the early 2000s, when he won a gold medal in Sydney and a bronze in Athens, Gardner was a star, something close to a household name. Nearly two decades later, most young adults – or anyone whose interest in Olympic sports stops short of wrestling – won’t remember much of his story. To some, he’s a faint memory, the guy in the milk ad, the character on the weight loss show. In fact, Gardner left The Biggest Loser early, without a final weigh-in (he entered the show topping the scales at 474lbs) for personal reasons. The documentary devotes a segment to his time on the show in 2011, which was Gardner’s most recent moment in the national spotlight, and the positive results he achieved, but it never mentions that abrupt departure or the reasons behind it. That’s one of several stretches of the documentary that gave me pause, where Gardner’s story seems to blow past any discussion of what makes him tick.
That’s a shame, because Gardner’s resolve is jaw-dropping, and his story is one of the best sports riffs on David’s takedown of Goliath. Born in 1971 in rural Afton, Wyoming, Gardner is the son of a Mormon farmer and the youngest of nine children. A learning disability made school difficult, as did his weight. Viewers know, at the very least, that this pudgy kid with horse manure on his arm will go on to be an Olympian, and the documentary does a phenomenal job laying out the odds Gardner overcame en route to two Olympic medals: his weight, his learning disability, the remote, small-town world that threatened to prevent him from ever leaving at all. There’s no question it would have been easier for Gardner to stay home, forego college, take over from his father and settle in on the dairy farm, using his brute strength to help run the operation through Wyoming winters.
The film paints Gardner as a kid who struggled with every sport until he found wrestling. (In reality, he won statewide accolades in football and shot put, too.) It chronicles his state championship as a heavyweight on the mat, then sends him straight to the University of Nebraska, a farm boy made good. But there’s a two-year gap that the documentary glosses over, a gap during which Gardner attended junior college, got married and lost his infant daughter in a car accident. None of those things – Ricks College, Sheri and Stacey Leigh Gardner, a car wreck – is mentioned once.
Gardner’s story, even without the introspection and off-the-mat context the documentary lacks, is borderline unbelievable. He was the ultimate underdog wrestler, a nobody at the 2000 Olympics who defeated Aleksandr Karelin, a menace of a man who had proven nearly unbeatable until then and who told the Olympic Channel crew that “I finished my career without glory. I felt like a traitor.” Karelin was so revered in the wrestling world – his career record was 887-2 and he was unbeaten in 13 years going into the 2000 Olympics – that top heavyweights would enter fights against him with the goal not of winning, but of surviving without a debilitating injury. In the 10 minutes Karelin’s story intersects with Gardner’s, he takes over the screen. He’s taller, scowling, a chiseled museum statue brought to life. Any time he and Gardner share a frame the obvious question is: How did Rulon Gardner beat this guy?
Rulon Gardner celebrates his victory over Aleksandr Karelin at the 2000 Olympic final
Rulon Gardner celebrates his victory over Aleksandr Karelin at the 2000 Olympic final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
The documentary never quite provides an answer. The closest it comes is to suggest an unfailing determination, a love of the sport. But that reeks of oversimplification, of using Gardner’s humble roots and soft-spoken mannerisms as permission to paint the man as something less complex than a full picture. The film relies heavily on one of Gardner’s sisters and a past coach for contemporary commentary. Katie Couric weighs in often. But where are Gardner’s friends? His other siblings? His wives? Gardner floats through the film almost entirely alone, and he appears to be alone today, beyond the company of a small, vest-wearing dog.
But he hasn’t always been. He’s single now, but he has been married several times and observes a religion, Mormonism, in which divorce is uncommon, a religion that’s barely mentioned beyond the documentary’s first few minutes. He’s painted as a perpetual bachelor, someone who, as he discusses his ongoing weight loss journey near the end of the film, highlights how much he wishes he had a family. Why doesn’t he? There’s no attempt to plumb deeper into Gardner’s existence, no nuanced discussion of how his own actions have re-routed his path. Gardner suffers two brushes with death in the film – a plane crash and a snowmobile accident that ended with one of his toes being amputated – but there’s no probing his apparent love for thrill-seeking activities, no thought given to how those accidents might have tugged his mind back to the daughter he lost decades prior. His sister posits late in the film that Gardner is addicted to food – and there he goes, frying up a slab of bacon, and it’s heartbreaking.
The documentary was originally called Rulon Gardner Won’t Die, but it’s never clear which so-called death the title refers to, and that’s a good thing, keeping the viewer engaged as the wrestler cycles through ending after ending, only to prove his story is still very much alive. There’s the literal, corporeal death his weight is pushing him towards, but there’s also the death of Gardner’s career, the death of his legend as time has passed and he’s faded from the spotlight. It’s clear that Gardner finds much of his own path painful to reflect upon, and loneliness permeates the moments filmed in the present.
At the end, the documentary gives glimpses into his everyday life, which is remarkably mundane: a middle-class neighborhood, a motorcycle, boxes of mementos stored in a garage. Gardner is a wrestling coach now at a Utah high school, and his athletes are devoted to him. “Probably the proudest moments you have are when you see a kid that says, ‘Coach, I’ll try anything,’” Gardner says as film of him working with the high schoolers rolls. “This is your new medal,” he tells a little boy, much too young to compete on his team, as he places one of his around his tiny neck.
All of Gardner’s Olympic memorabilia had been auctioned off years earlier after a bad business decision left him bankrupt, but he’s been able to reclaim most of it. As Gardner shows his athletes the various hardware, he encourages them to hold the medals, wear them. Gardner’s story is for everyone. It’s inspirational, even if Gardner himself remains a mystery.