He looks good, but Rulon Gardner is still finding his feet. Last Saturday in Las Vegas the super-heavyweight gold medalist of the Sydney Olympics lost a semifinal bout at the Greco-Roman national championships—his first nationals since a near-fatal snowmobile accident that led to the loss of a toe. Gardner, 31, was tied 2-2 with Corey Farkas, 28, his Olympic training partner, when Farkas used a ploy Gardner taught him three years ago. With the wrestlers chest to chest, Farkas sensed that Gardner would try to flip him. Farkas gave slightly to make Gardner think he had the advantage, then shifted his weight and used his leverage to topple himself onto Gardner for the win.
"It was a bad mistake," says Gardner, who despite wrestling with his right foot heavily bandaged won his four other matches by a combined score of 37-1. "I didn't have to attack like that. I got too excited." The loss spoiled a potential showdown between Gardner and Dremiel Byers, 28, a U.S. Army sergeant who won the 2002 world title in Gardner's absence. Byers beat Farkas 3-0 in the final, earning a bye into the championship round of the world trials next month in Indianapolis. Gardner and Farkas will compete there for the right to wrestle Byers for a berth on the world team. Says Gardner, "Now I have a 2,000-degree fire under my butt."
A victory over Byers would cap a remarkable comeback for Gardner, who in February 2002 nearly froze to death after becoming separated from his snowmobiling party on Wagner Mountain, a 10,745-foot peak in western Wyoming (SI, June 3, 2002). When he was rescued 17 hours later, his clothes were frozen to his body and his temperature had dropped to 80�. Doctors were forced to amputate the middle toe on his right foot Gardner keeps the digit in a jar in his fridge at his Colorado Springs home. "People always ask about what happened to it," he says, "so I have a show-and-tell. It's also a reminder about how far I've come since last year."
Gardner returned to training in September and quickly recovered his conditioning and most of his wrestling instincts, though his footwork is still subpar. "It's hard to push and react with the confidence I had when I have to go up on my toes," he says, "but I have no complaints. There's no reason I should be alive after that night."