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Column: Gardner is the ultimate survivor

Just two days after surviving a plane crash near the Arizona-Utah border, Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner, right, demonstrates some wrestling techniques on wrestling coach Dave Gutbrod at the Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Rulon Gardner makes a pretty good living giving motivational speeches around the country at $10,000 to $15,000 a pop. He tells the story about how he beat an unbeatable Russian to win an Olympic gold medal. He talks about how he survived a motorcycle crash, and a frozen night in the wilderness that cost him one of his toes.

The message is a simple one: "Never Give Up. Never Stop Trying."

Gardner knows it by heart. He's on the road 300 days a year repeating it to anyone who will listen.

But he had to fight hard to believe it himself when he was forced to crawl out of a crashed plane into a frigid lake the other day.

"I was done," Gardner said. "I hit the water and I said I don't think I can make it."

A few minutes earlier he and his two friends had been sightseeing over Good Hope Bay near the Utah-Arizona border in their single engine plane. Now they were in the water, stunned, cold and looking at a shoreline that seemed a million miles away.

Gardner doesn't swim well and was doubting his chances. But Randy and Leslie Brooks had a motivational speech of their own.

"They said, `Rulon, focus. Get rid of your stuff and we're going to swim to the shore," he recalled. "Hearing them tell me, `Hey, you're going to make it. You're going to make it through this because you have to.' I'm like, OK. You belly up and you start heading to the shore."

You belly up and start heading to the shore.

Simple as that. Kind of like snapping Alexander Karelin's 13-year international winning streak and winning the Greco-Roman wrestling gold in Sydney.

Much like keeping yourself alive overnight in the Wyoming wilderness when your clothes are frozen, the temperature drops to minus-25, and you know that with sleep comes death.

Work hard and you will succeed. Aim high when you're feeling low.

It's all part of the speech. All you have to do is believe.

"We just started heading to shore, just one stroke at a time," Gardner said. "It got to the point where I'm like, 'You know, this isn't that bad.'"

That, of course, depends on where you're coming from.

You and I might apply the phrase "this isn't that bad" to a chilly day on the golf course. Gardner said it when he left an Idaho hospital with only nine of the 10 toes that he came in with when they brought him back nearly frozen stiff a few years ago.

Compared to that experience, crashing a plane into a lake, swimming to shore and spending a cold night naked with only some rocks to protect himself from the wind actually may not have seemed that bad.

Gardner came out of it with some good new material for his speeches. He planned to give three of them in the Boston area on Tuesday, and you can be sure he was doing some heavy rewriting on the plane heading there from Salt Lake City.

I met Gardner only once, under less than ideal conditions. It was enough, however, to get a measure of the 280-pounder with a baby face who dealt with adversity with the same calmness he used to beat Karelin for the gold medal.

He was in a hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a few days removed from his rescue from the snowmobiling ordeal that by all rights should have killed him. I drove a few hundred miles in the snow from the Olympics in Salt Lake City for a bedside interview.

Gardner was worried about losing most of his toes to frostbite. But he was already looking ahead, trying to stay positive.

"At first they said it doesn't look good. But today the toes look better," he said at the time. "We're trying to do everything we can to keep my toes and my wrestling career."

Gardner would lose only one toe to frostbite and, a little more than two years later, he was back on the mat at the Athens Olympics, where he won the bronze despite being one digit short.

When his final match ended, he left his wrestling shoes on the mat -- the sign that his career was over.

Gardner would go on to parlay his wrestling fame and his brush with death into a lucrative career giving speeches to various corporations, schools and farm organizations. The son of a dairy farmer who grew up milking cows is now both rich and famous.

He tells stories about overcoming adversity, and he's had plenty of experience with that. It started when he was a kid and accidentally shot himself with a bow and arrow, narrowly missing vital organs. Along the way, he also crashed his motorcycle into a car, only to walk away.

On Monday, his manager was busy handling calls and fielding media requests for a story that will only add to Gardner's legend. He, meanwhile, was dealing with it in the same matter-of-fact way he's dealt with all the big events of the last seven years.

He's had one miraculous win, and two miraculous escapes from death. He might just also have an attention-grabbing new opening line for his next motivational speech.

"I should be dead," Gardner said. "I shouldn't be on the earth today."

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org

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