Every “Never give up and never stop trying” was the message shared by Rulon Gardner at a special evening session of the Western Dairy Management Conference last month.
If you have seen one of the newer “got milk?” advertisements, Rulon is the really big guy holding two buckets of milk standing in front of the Holstein cow.
Gardner catapulted to international fame at the 2000 Olympics by beating the reigning 13-year Russian champion in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Now, Greco-Roman wrestling is beyond my comprehension. I happened to watch the match because the television coverage mentioned that our U.S. competitor had grown up on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyo. From the looks of the guy, he probably tossed heifers for training.
When the match began, it looked like a couple really big guys grabbed each other and pushed for about 5 minutes. Apparently, this was part of Rulon’s strategy, to simply wear the Russian down.
To say “simply” does both competitors and the sport injustice. Gardner, at age 28, weighs in at 286 pounds. His heavier Russian competitor has picked Rulon up (over his head) and thrown him down three times in previous competitions.
The Russian had also announced the party and autograph signing sessions celebrating his fourth gold medal and win over Gardner – before the wrestling match began. Obviously, both physical and mental training and strategy are important parts of this sport.
The evening Rulon Gardner spoke to a ballroom full of dairy folks, he spoke about his journey to the Olympics and his philosophy of life that has helped him overcome a few obstacles along the way.
* Go back to the basics. When you are young, you believe you can be anything you want to be. Sometimes we need to go way back to those times and believe.
Mrs. Gardner is Rulon’s mom and biggest supporter and role model. She worked full time and attended his events while studying to be a nurse (not to mention the other eight kids and a dairy farm…).
When a reading comprehension problem put him into a special class and separated him from friends, Mrs. Gardner continued to help him believe that he could do what he set out to do.
* Turn the negative into a positive. A high school counselor told Mrs. Gardner that Rulon would never graduate from high school. If someone tells him he can’t do something, Rulon uses that negative as a positive motivator to prove them wrong.
After graduating from high school, the counselors at the University of Nebraska said the same thing. While it took nearly seven years to accomplish, he proved those counselors wrong as well. After earning his bachelor’s degree, Rulon became a middle school teacher in Wyoming.
* Aim high when you are feeling low. The Gardner family was a good role model here. One of Rulon’s brothers died of aplastic anemia at age 12. In 1979, the family’s dairy barn burned. After considering their options, the family chose to rebuild the dairy. Until the building was completed, milking continued outside in frigidly cold winter temperatures.
* Enlist others. Many other people can and will help you to achieve your goals. Rulon has been wrestling for 25 years and started by wrestling with his older brothers who helped him learn (or was he just trying to survive normal “brother” stuff?) Each coach throughout his career has helped him learn and achieve.
Rulon shared that it is important to ask in order to learn.
Community also played an important role in Rulon’s Olympic journey. His community raised enough money to send 16 people including family and coaches to Australia for the Olympics.
* Train hard. No one said anything was going to be easy. As the youngest of nine children on a large family dairy farm, Rulon related that “…you always end up doing all the work.” Kind of like training you don’t have to pay for. He was always a large child, 11 pounds at birth and 120 pounds by fourth grade.
* Take care of business. Prepare every day to take care of business. Think through what the best and worse case scenarios could be. Then prepare for them.
* Don’t rest on your laurels. If you have achieved your goals, search for and set the next goal.
What does a guy do after becoming the David that beat Greco-Roman wrestling’s Goliath? Gardner’s long-term goal is to make it back to the Greek Olympic games. His short-term goal was to win the national championship competition, which was to be held the next week.
In summary, Rulon shared that he felt that it is important to enjoy the journey. If you had a chance to watch the Olympic match, you would have seen that when he realized he had won, this 286-pound heavyweight did cartwheels across the mat. Pretty darn good ones, too.
A fitting illustration of Gardner’s final thought about enjoying the journey, as he encouraged us all “… to do cartwheels through life.”
(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)