From the Billings
Last modified September 10, 2005 -
out in book
LARAMIE - Rulon Gardner is plain-spoken
and forthright. You can feel rural Wyoming
He apologizes for taking too much of a
reporter's time, when in reality he takes less than usual because there is no
need to peel back layers to get at the man beneath the Olympic and world-champion
wrestler. He laughs easily and jokes about his roots.
Gardner is also quick to correct an easy misstatement - he
didn't write a book, he co-wrote it.
Even if it is more credit than Gardner is willing to
take, his voice and his values saturate the book, "Never Stop
Pushing," co-written with author Bob Schaller.
"When you're in school growing up, you
have teachers who sit and read to these kids, and what better opportunity to
sit and read a story - one that's not fake. It's not a dreaming story. It's not Harry Potter. It's a real-life story, with
glorious moments to horrific moments, including the frostbite - and what better
way to show kids their potential than with a real-life story?" Gardner said.
Real life is what the book, and Gardner
himself, do well. "Never Stop Pushing" chronicles Gardner's life from
Afton farm boy to an Olympian who pulled off one of the most improbable
victories in Olympic history by defeating undefeated Russian sports icon
Alexander Karelin in heavyweight Greco Roman wrestling.
The narrative thread that weaves throughout the chronology of the book isn't of
Sydney 2000 glory, however, it's of Gardner's
harrowing odyssey after becoming lost and nearly freezing while snowmobiling in
The story is essentially about overcoming
obstacles, from a learning disability to innumerable injuries. Gardner isn't perfect, and he knows it -
which is why the book and his success in the Sydney Olympics are worth
attention. In terms of athletics, Karelin was as
close to perfect as anyone has ever been, and knowing that Gardner's struggles will eventually result in
the "miracle on the mat" makes the story compelling reading.
Of course, "Never Stop Pushing"
reads as if it was written by an educated wrestler, not Dostoevski
- which is a credit to Bob Schaller for not smothering the homespun charm in
The most personal and sincere parts of the
book come when Gardner
details his childhood and talks about his family. Details of Gardner hauling
and setting pipe and milking cows with his brother and best friend, Reynold, getting pitched from the back of a pickup that his
young sisters were driving and learning the lessons of hard work and goal
setting from his disciplinarian father help the reader feel the Gardners' Star Valley dairy operation, right down to the
bitter cold and high altitude.
Gardner, himself, didn't know all of the
family stories when he began, and learning them from his mother made writing
the book even more important to him.
"It's my mom. She wanted her impact, and
it's the family history that makes the book so special because a lot of the
stories I never knew before we did the book," Gardner said.
The family is as tight-knit as they are rough
and tumble. The childhood dynamic of siblings never entirely disappears, and Gardner couldn't resist taking a playful shot at his older
sister, Marcella Wright, who is a home health care professional in Laramie.
"Make sure the people of Laramie stay healthy, or my sister Marcella will come visit
said. "With my sister, physically maybe (she can be overpowered), but
mentally, psychologically she will destroy you. I don't mess with my sisters.
You think I'm tough, you should mess with my family."
In stark contrast to the intimacy the reader
feels for Gardner's
family is the absence of even a single mention of his personal relationships or
"We decided that we wanted to stay away
from it and just tell the story as a wrestler," Gardner said.
The omission does move the pace of the
wrestler story along more quickly but is incongruous given Gardner's inclusion of details as personal as
the vision of God, Jesus and his deceased brother that he had while on the cusp
of death in sub-zero wilderness.
Gardner's willingness to fully address the pain of being in
special education classes and being called "Dumbo"
as a child, and having his goal of earning a higher education degree from the University of Nebraska repeatedly challenged by
university staff is admirable, however. Gardner
doesn't come across as petty and doesn't stick his literary tongue out at
detractors (except for a brief mention of hometown jealousy in the wake of his
gold medal match, which he doesn't fully explain). He honestly tells the story
of pride, work and intense patriotism.
A cynic might view the occasionally
over-the-top patriotism as jingoism at best or a ploy to tug at heartland
heartstrings at worst, but such cynicism could only be justified by ignoring
the rest of the book. Gardner
isn't cynical, and his likability, even in print,
prohibits a scathing reading of the book.
When Gardner writes, "Once again the
American flag kept me going, reminding me of my coaches and teammates, my
family in the stands, the troops overseas, the people back home in Star Valley,"
it rings true for him. For another, it would smack of pomposity.
The upbeat positivism of the inspirational
speaker - which Gardner
now is - creeps in, and the book occasionally feels like an adjunct to a
motivational speech, but it never wavers from its basic premise. And for that,
Gardner - and Schaller - are to be commended.
"It's the story of a kid from Wyoming who went from
zero to gold medal. Anybody can accomplish any goal with the right frame of
mind and the right goal and the right belief in themselves,"
"Nobody can tell a person from Wyoming what they can
and can't do," he said. "Wyoming
brings out the best in people. That's what makes it an amazing country in its
own little way."