I recently had the privilege of hearing Rulon Gardner share one of his life challenges named Alexander Karelin. First, let me put a face on Alexander Karelin. He was nicknamed "The Experiment." No one would expect that a Russian like Alexander would be a natural product of training and determination. Alexander was the most dominate Greco-Roman wrestler of all time. He was undefeated in international competition (spanning from 1987 to 2000), and he went ten years without giving up a point. That is correct, not one point! Alexander won three gold medals at the Olympics in 1988, 1992 and 1996. He was preparing to win his record fourth gold medal in 2000. If a Greco-Roman wrestler was training for the 2000 Olympics, he would wrestle Alexander Karelin literally and figuratively. Any potential competitor was going to meet the greatest challenge of his life. The challenger had a name, also.
The man who met Alexander Karelin and was victorious over the challenge was Rulon Gardner. He was a Wyoming farm boy. I met Rulon a couple weeks ago after he spoke at a fundraising event in Central Oregon. I remember watching the Olympics in 2000 when Bob Costas broadcast the greatest upset for Americans since the Miracle on Ice when the 1980 USA hockey team upset Soviet Union. This 2000 Olympic upset happened on a wrestling mat in Sydney. No one had given Rulon a chance that day except for one man. Rulon's coach believed that he could beat Karelin. Everyone else thought that it was a foregone conclusion that Rulon would be another victim of Alexander Karelin.
The wrestler who also was nicknamed "the meanest man in the world" would simply dispose of this Wyoming farm boy. On the contrary, Rulon disposed of his Alexander, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWN4xEPLWjE great Russian wrestler in overtime. Rulon first met Alexander Karelin in the 1997 World Championships where Alexander broke Rulon's neck and threw him out of the ring three times. Imagine having to face him again only three years later.
Rulon went on to win the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics over Karelin. The 2000 Olympics is called now the "Miracle on the Mat." However, that is not the end of Rulon's story. Believe it or not, Rulon does not consider his true life challenge to be winning the match over Alexander Karelin. The match against Karelin only prepared him for the real life challenge that occurred off the mat in 2002. Rulon won a challenge many of us hope to never meet. Rulon was stuck in his snowmobile and lost in the Wyoming Wilderness for 17 hours in minus 25 degrees F (minus 31.6 Celsius) temperatures.
He was suffering from hypothermia, and he sank his snowmobile five times in the water and he became frozen. The chance of a rescue looked dismal. He would most likely be found dead as a frozen statue of Olympic glory. To this day, I cannot fathom anyone surviving in those temperatures for 17 hours. When Rulon first got to the hospital after his rescue, the doctor's thought that he would need to have both feet amputated. Talk about facing an "Alexander" for a person who lived on his feet for wrestling. Rulon used his snowmobile experience to propel him back to the Olympics in 2004.
I have followed Rulon over the years since he taught as an assistant teacher at Irving Junior High School in Lincoln, Nebraska where I attended middle school. He also attended the University of Nebraska on a wrestling scholarship. More recently Rulon lost 200 pounds as a contestant on NBC's "Biggest Loser". He looked slim and ready to get back on the mats in Oregon recently. As a matter of fact, he is training for the 2012 Olympics at the age of 40!
I do have a strong belief. The man Rulon beat in Sydney is probably the person who saved his life in the Wyoming wilderness. Every event that we encounter up to a certain point in our life prepares us for future challenges. If you have not faced an "Alexander" challenge, the chances are that you will one day. We all do. None of us leave this world unscathed. We are molded by our experiences, challenges, disappointments and struggles in our life. Rulon could have easily quit that frigid night in Wyoming. There would never have been a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics when the doctors told him he would never walk again much less wrestle.
Rulon has a very inspirational story. Much like you and me, it is what we do with our challenges that define us. Never, ever give up!
Sean Luce is the Head National Instructor for the Luce Performance Group and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.