He spent the night drifting in and out of consciousness as the temperature dropped to -25�. He recalls dozing off once and seeing God on a chair in a white room, with Jesus beneath him, sitting above Rulon's older brother, Ronald, who died of aplastic anemia at 14. In the dream Ronald was in his 20s. "It was comforting, but kind of scary," Gardner says, "because if I was in that room with them, it meant I was ready to die. So I started to think of all I had to live for. Wrestling. My family. Tausha."
His girlfriend, 21-year-old Tausha Simkins, Trent's sister, had changed the text greeting message on Gardner's cellphone to read, "Love you, hon." "That was the only thing I could get on my phone," says Gardner. "I kept thinking, 'This sucks. That's the last thing I'm ever going to read.' She was a big part of how I made it through the night."
Gardner had been going out with Tausha, the reigning Miss Rodeo Wyoming, since January. He'd known her most of her life. "I've pretty much reached all the goals I've set for myself except to start a family," Gardner says. "That night on the mountain I was thinking I might not get that chance."
A search plane spotted him a little before 7 a.m. and circled for another 2� hours before a rescue helicopter could reach him. When he crawled aboard, his core body temperature was 80 degrees, but the only parts of his body that were frostbitten were his feet. "His toes were frozen back to the balls of his feet," says Dr. Timothy Thurman, who treated him at the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. "I thought he'd lose more toes, and possibly all of them."
For the first two days in the hospital Gardner refused all painkillers. "When I do something stupid, I want to feel it," he says.
After his feet thawed, doctors began peeling away the dead tissue, layer by layer. The right foot that had been encased in the wet sock was in significantly worse shape than the left one, and by the time the dead tissue was removed from his right big toe, the joint was exposed. He remained in the hospital for 10 days, and three weeks after being released, pigskin was applied to his toes, and he began spending two hours a day in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to stimulate blood flow to his feet. Two weeks later skin from his thigh was grafted to seven of his toes, and pins were inserted into six of them to keep them from bending and thus allow the blood vessels to heal. But on March 28 his right middle toe had to be amputated. He also lost part of the tips of both his big toes.
As the severity of his injuries and the length of the recovery process became clear, Gardner's ordinarily sunny disposition grew darker. He'd won the Greco-Roman heavyweight World Championships in Greece in December, and he had been looking forward to defending his title in September in Russia, but the U.S. trials are June 21-23, and as the weeks went by, it became obvious there was no way he'd be wrestling by then.
"I'd always had wrestling to turn to," he says. "Suddenly, for this year, it was gone. People deal with their demons in different ways. I dealt with mine by pushing everyone away."
Gardner broke up with Tausha and asked his family to stop visiting him at the hospital. "I had to collect my thoughts," he says. "By myself."
What he learned through the soul-searching is that since the Olympics he's had to deal with the continual adjustment to his newfound fame. "I realized that I needed to get rid of the unimportant things in my life. Wrestling's important. Family's important. Now I'm pulling things back that are important to me. I'm building back up little by little."