Rulon Gardner loves competition. Ten years ago, the Greco-Roman wrestler triumphed over the undefeated Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin. The 2000 Olympic gold medalist and 2004 bronze medalist is now wrestling a new foe: his weight.
Six years after retiring from the sport, Gardner is competing on the 11th season of The Biggest Loser, premiering Jan. 4, on NBC. On the show, Gardner is partnered with Justin Pope, with whom he owns a health club in Logan, Utah. The duo is playing for $250,000 and the opportunity to lose weight and improve their overall lifestyles.
In Sept., Gardner went to Calif., to start filming the reality television show. He returned home to Utah in the middle of Dec. for two weeks, where he found time to speak to TeamUSA.org before leaving again on Jan. 2 to resume the competition.
What made you decide to try out for the show?
Since I finished competing, I continued to eat the way I was when I was training and I said, ‘I’m going to step away from wrestling and give my body and my mind some time to recover,’ so I stepped away and first it was six months to a year and it continued on to the point where it was like, ‘Oh my gosh I’m in such bad shape,’ and ultimately it just continued and I didn’t take accountability for my weight gain.
This last year [June 2010], they were inducting me into the [National Wrestling] Hall of Fame and Lee Roy Smith [curator of National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum] saw how big I was and he said, ‘Rulon I think you need to look at trying out for The Biggest Loser,’ and I said, ‘Why do you say that,’ and he said, ‘You need to seriously look in the mirror and think about it because your health is going to become an issue because you’re so big.’
My reaction was, ‘I don’t need help, I’m not that big,’ I made excuses and shuffled away from looking at the mirror and taking responsibility for what I had become… Later that night I was sitting watching the induction on TV and see myself and I was like, ‘Holy cow, I barely even recognize myself. You need to do something about this because if it’s this bad after six years what’s it going to be after 10, 15 or 20 years?’
Potentially, I would be dead in 10 years because of the weight I put on and the complications through obesity – diabetes, heart disease. When I saw that I knew it was time to make a change.
Had you been exercising in the six years since you retired?
Not really. That was part of the problem – I had been taking time off and giving my body time to relax and recover. I didn’t take any responsibility.
What was the application process like for the show?
I had to try out just like everybody else. We went and tried out, got one callback, went for a second interview, we had a callback there, went through that, they said, ‘Okay we’ll let you know but we need some video and some more information of who you are.’ We went through and got them some video and ultimately it was almost three weeks later we finally got another callback to go to LA and we had to go through a two-week trial period before we actually got on the show.
What was your heaviest weight?
The heaviest is actually at the weigh-in [at the start of The Biggest Loser] - 474.
How much did you weigh in your wrestling days?
In 2000, I was 286 lbs. 2004 was 264.
Had you ever seen the show before you tried out for it?
No. My wife had, she’s an avid fan…She loved the show and she would always talk about it and I always brushed it off. Heck I have a hard enough time with my own reality, why would I watch reality TV? I didn’t need help. I didn’t need that pressure.
When you found out this season was a couples edition, how did you choose Justin as your partner?
It really was an obvious choice. They wanted a family member and my family has always been bigger but a lot of them have had surgery, gastric bypass, lap bands, extreme diets to get skinny. By the time I was being interviewed to get on the show my family was pretty much skinny so I looked and Justin was the obvious choice being part of the business and being a close friend. Our concern for our health is very important for us… He had already lost around 50 lbs. [before the show] so he was already taking control of his life but I needed to be able to take control like he already had.
Do you think you have an advantage on the show, having the competitive spirit of an Olympian?
Yes, I think I have an advantage. You have the advantage of losing weight and getting towards your goal. Being a former athlete I had the most muscle they’ve ever had on the show. I have over 200 lbs. of muscle and that’s a negative because to get down to my goal weight I’m going to have to cut muscle while everyone else is cutting fat so it is an advantage in certain capacities but ultimately it’s a detriment.
I’ve heard that the heaviest men typically win the competition because they have the most to lose and have an easier time losing it. You’re the second-heaviest contestant this season – does that give you an advantage?
The bigger you are, the more you can lose typically but at a certain point for me to lose 50% of my weight I’m going to have to be 240 and I haven’t been 240 since I was a sophomore in high school. I’m going to have to get leaner [in terms of muscle] and I’m okay with that.
What has surprised you the most about what you have been through on the show so far?
Probably the thing that’s surprised me the most so far is how easy it is to be educated and actually lose weight. That’s the most miraculous thing because it’s just calories in, calories out, nutrition – general nutrition that I never worried about…Education comes about through understanding and a lot of people don’t realize that 3,500 calories that you burn every day that you don’t consume in food is a pound of fat lost. Every day I’m consuming 2,000 calories but I’m also burning 7,000 so I’m losing over a pound of fat a day.
There’s tools out there that people don’t know about and if you educate yourself and spend the time on the treadmill or out walking or doing circuits or weightlifting or whatever, you can actually burn all that weight and lose weight, it’s not that difficult.
Do you think you could have lost as much weight as you have and will hopefully continue to lose without the show?
I could’ve but it would’ve taken me three or four years to lose as much weight as I’m going to lose in six to eight months.
How does the show and the workout regimens compare with what you expected going into it?
The first few weeks were the challenge and then lately it hasn’t been as tough as I thought. Understanding it and spending the time and committing the effort has made it all that much more special.
Do you think you have a good shot at winning the competition?
You look at my beginning weight, you look at my ending weight, it’s going to be really hard for me to win the competition [especially] because it’s the longest season ever. Before, people lost 50+% of weight. I’m going to have to bust my butt more than anybody else to lose that weight. It’s going to be hard for me to lose the weight compared to a lot of the other contestants. It is what it is and I accept that. I’m not about winning the money, I’m about losing the weight and being healthy again. What’s truly important to me is getting my health back.
You put yourself in a situation of here I am for six to eight months of hard work and effort and I [aim to] get myself back to competition weight. Within a matter of days, I got off all medication. My high blood pressure went from 160/120 down to 120/80. My blood pressure became perfect. It wasn’t because I got on a better medication; it was because I took some responsibility for my weight. On the show they really push getting you off the medication and getting you on a strenuous exercise program… I’m a physical education teacher by trade and it’s almost elementary to actually learn about it and go, ‘Oh this isn’t that bad after all, this is amazing.’
Very interesting! Is there anything else that you’ve learned from being on the show, whether it is about losing weight or about yourself?
It’s pretty amazing that I’ve been given the chance to be on The Biggest Loser and I know that some people thought it was wrong that I got on the show or that I deserve what I got. I just really appreciate the chance to be on the show and to get my health back. It’s hard for anybody out there to lose the weight – it takes time and effort and knowledge and I’ve been given a situation where I can gain all that in a matter of weeks and to go on the show and lose the weight.
I’m tickled pink because I can see already that I’m going to look as good or better than I looked when I competed, because when I competed I was trying to gain muscle and I wasn’t worried about how much fat I had but now I don’t want to be able to squat 600 lbs., I want to be healthy because I’ve already had an enlarged heart, I’ve already had certain health issues that are a concern because I am so big and large and I think there’s a lot of former athletes who get in a very unhealthy diet because we stop working out. There’s responsibility that needs to be taken by somebody to educate everybody.
I think it’s ultimately educating athletes and educating society. Just gain some knowledge and figure out why you have become what you’ve become and make the change because with the right support around each other we can make the change and we can get our lives back.
Great lesson to learn. Good luck with the show and the weight loss – I can’t wait to start watching!