From the Billings (Montana) Gazette

Last modified September 10, 2005 - 1:19 am

Real Gardner bursts out in book

LARAMIE - Rulon Gardner is plain-spoken and forthright. You can feel rural Wyoming in him.

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 Wyoming wilderness.

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 prose.

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 you," Gardner 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 his wife.

"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," Gardner said.

"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."