Gardner: Nebraska Diploma Worth More Than Gold

By NU Athletic Communications
Olympic gold medalist and Husker All-American Rulon Gardner will be signing autographs on Saturday morning at the Husker Nation Pavilion before NU's football game with San Jose State.
Olympic gold medalist and Husker All-American Rulon Gardner will be signing autographs on Saturday morning at the Husker Nation Pavilion before NU's football game with San Jose State.
Photo by Associated Press

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Rulon Gardner is proud of his gold medal from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and just as proud of his bronze medal from 2004 in Athens because for him, it was an even tougher personal path to take. “But medals are just symbols. They lose their luster. My teaching degree from Nebraska is more important to me than anything I’ve achieved,” Gardner said. “It represents my most difficult journey of all and became the foundation for everything else I’ve ever accomplished.”

He was not exaggerating. Even though the former Husker All-America heavyweight defeated the greatest Olympic wrestler of all time in the “Miracle on the Mat” eight years ago, one of the biggest hills he ever climbed – and some of the longest odds he’s ever beaten – were getting a college degree.

One of America’s most famous Olympic athletes ever returned to his alma mater Thursday, and if any of Nebraska’s 550-plus student-athletes wondered about the No. 1 reason they’re in Lincoln, Rulon Gardner reminded them – to get a college diploma.
Gardner, you see, grew up on a Wyoming dairy farm wondering if he’d ever get a high school diploma, let alone a college degree. He struggled with reading speed and comprehension and was tagged with the “learning disabilities” label. He spent almost every night listening while his mother read him books and assisted him with his homework assignments.

Gardner became the butt of his classmates’ jokes. He worked hard at home, milking cows, feeding calves and chopping grain. He and his brother, Reynold, would often wrestle to see who had to do the most chores. Wrestling quickly became his ultimate outlet and his greatest individual strength.

The youngest of Reed and Virginia Gardner’s nine children, Rulon had a gift, and he used it to win a Wyoming state high school heavyweight championship in 1989. Two years later, he won a national juco heavyweight championship at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho.

Athletically, Gardner was a prize recruit and a number of schools, including Wyoming and BYU, offered scholarships. He feared no one on a mat, but virtually everyone inside a classroom.

Rulon Became ‘The Black Sheep’ of the Gardner Family

All seven of his living brothers and sisters ended up graduating from the University of Wyoming. “I was the black sheep of the family when I decided to go to Nebraska,” Rulon said, “but I knew Nebraska offered more academic support than anyone else. They were so positive and so caring. They told me if I worked as hard as I could and went to class every single day, they would do everything they could to help me earn a degree.”

That’s all Rulon needed to hear, and it matched up well with what his eyes were telling him. “All that red – it impressed me,” he said. “I knew this was a special place. Even schools who wish they had Nebraska’s loyalty know that the ‘N’ means something – whether it’s football, wrestling or anything else.”

Nebraska, Gardner said, helped him develop the discipline to achieve what was once considered an unreachable dream – a degree in physical education. “People don’t understand what it took for me to pursue that goal,” he said. “It took everything I had in me, and that’s when I learned how much more you have inside you than you think you have.”

Once he got his degree, his mind knew no boundaries. Few have gone from greater obscurity to worldwide prominence than Gardner. His best NCAA finish at Nebraska was fourth in 1993. By ’95, he was a USA Wrestling Greco-Roman national champion. He even won the World Cup Greco-Roman title in 1996, but a staph infection prevented him from participating in the U.S. Olympic Trials that year.

Anyone else might have moved on, but not Gardner. With a college degree and a newfound confidence, he developed his own seven-step program and earned a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, upsetting three-time Russian Olympic champion Aleksandr Karelin in the gold medal match. Karelin hadn’t lost in 13 years, so Gardner’s win was considered the biggest individual upset in any sport in Olympic history.

Saturday, when Gardner is introduced at the Nebraska-New Mexico State football game, the big screens will feature that memorable Olympic moment. “Do you believe in miracles again? Rulon Gardner has upset the king,” the announcer shouts as he compares the “Miracle on the Mat” accomplishment to the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” win over the Soviets in hockey.

For the closing ceremonies in Sydney, American teammates voted Gardner the highest honor possible – USA’s official flag-bearer. The constantly striving and overachieving farm boy from Wyoming not only won every individual award imaginable, but also became a familiar face on Leno, Letterman and Oprah.

Gardner’s Seven Steps to Overcome Obstacles

Gardner describes his riveting journey to earning two gold medals and surviving two near-death situations (a snowmobiling accident and a plane crash) through the following seven steps:

  1. Go back to the basics: “When I struggled in school in Wyoming, and they put me in special education classes, I had to go back to the basics and measure my improvement little by little every single day. By giving my absolute best at all times, I developed a mindset that I could do almost anything. That meant I could never stop pushing myself, and I never did.” 
  2. Turn negatives into positives: “I knew how strong and focused Karelin was, yet I never bought any of the hype that he was superhuman. I’d carried cows across icy farm fields. I’d survived my brother’s death and our barn burning down. I’d gone to college and graduated, for crying out loud – don’t tell me about long odds. My faith and my dreams were still mine to do with what I want.”
  3. Enlist other people: “Steve Fraser won an Olympic gold, became our coach and helped me defy expectations. Bruce Baumgartner (U.S. Olympic freestyler and two-time gold medalist) brought me to Pennsylvania to train with him because he knew I had absolutely no fear of him. Matt Ghaffari overcame several major knee injuries and was as influential as anyone in my career.” 
  4. Train hard every day: “I learned the value of dedication, perseverance and heart at Nebraska. I knew there were bigger, stronger and technically better athletes, but I drove myself more than my coaches drove me. I wrestled grinders two hours straight every day. It physically tore me down, but I knew there wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen or anything I couldn’t get done.”
  5. Take care of business: “The idea is to have a game plan – to attack and to stay in your opponent’s face and never back down. Karelin got frustrated because both of us knew I was better prepared for overtime. He had nothing left. He lost his strength and his confidence. With eight seconds left, he put his hands on his hips, bowed his head and conceded victory.”

  1. Aim high when you’re feeling low: “In 2002, I nearly froze to death when I was separated from a snowmobiling party on an 11,000-foot peak in Wyoming. It took 17 hours before I was rescued in 25-below temperatures. My body temperature dropped to 80, and they had to amputate the middle toe on my right foot. I survived because I concentrated on one thing – my blessings.”

  1. Don’t rest on your laurels: “I never allowed my new physical limitations to enter my mind in preparations for Athens. I gave everything I had in me to win a bronze medal. My opponent was 6-7, and the last point I ever earned came in the clinch. Ironically, it was the same move I’d used to beat Karelin in 2000. It was one of my best-thought-out, best-executed matches ever.”

He Left His Shoes in the Center of the Mat

In five years, Gardner had an Olympic gold, a World Championship gold and an Olympic bronze. He was proud to beat back the doubters one last time on the world’s biggest stage. He bent down to unlace his shoes one final time. He thought about all the painful work he’d done walking and learning to wrestle again. He looked at the American flag and decided to leave his shoes in the center of the mat, under the lights. He said even the people who had been booing during the match burst into applause.

Rulon Gardner continues to gain worldwide fame and some measure of fortune. He’s written a best-selling book – “Never Stop Pushing,” a compelling account of his life from a Wyoming farm to the Olympic medals stand. He gives motivational speeches for corporations, charities, schools and wrestling camps across the country.

He shows up on national television, and he was more than willing to accommodate Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills when he asked Gardner to address Husker student-athletes and the entire athletic department.

“Anytime you can get a former student-athlete to share his life experiences with our current student-athletes, it’s your classic win-win,” Zimmer said. “We had two captive audiences, and they heard an inspiring story from one of America’s best athletes. He beat the odds in the classroom and then explained how his graduation from Nebraska enabled one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. That’s pretty good theater, even eight years later.”

Nebraska Wrestling Coach Mark Manning called Gardner “the epitome of effort, will and humility.” 

NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne introduced Gardner as a great example of a student-athlete who paid the price to maximize his academic and athletic potential.

Unsolicited, Gardner asked for the microphone one last time Thursday to extol the benefits of the TeamMates mentoring program. He encouraged athletic department employees to take an hour every week and help inspire youth to reach their full potential.

When it comes to reaching full potential, Rulon Gardner may just be the best in Nebraska history. Take the time to meet him Saturday from 9:30-10:30 a.m. at the Autograph Zone in the Husker Nation Pavilion. His book will be on sale at the University Bookstore tent inside the pavilion, and he will be signing autographs. Former Husker Academic All-America offensive lineman Mark Traynowicz will join Gardner in the Autograph Zone Saturday.


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