Olympian Gardner survives small plane crash

Updated: February 26, 2007, 1:12 PM ET
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner lost a toe to frostbite after being stranded in the wilderness, impaled himself with an arrow and was involved in a serious motorcycle accident.

In his latest escape from death, he survived a plane crash over the weekend into the aptly named Good Hope Bay on the Utah-Arizona border.

"I think I'm really lucky," Gardner told CNN on Monday, "after everything I have been through."

Gardner and two Utah brothers were rescued by a fisherman Sunday after swimming more than an hour in 44-degree water and spending the night without shelter.

None suffered life-threatening injuries, authorities said.

"It takes only about 30 minutes for someone swimming in 44-degree water to start suffering the effects of hypothermia, so the fact that they swam in it for an hour, not to mention surviving the plane crash and the night without fire or shelter, is pretty amazing," said Steven Luckesen, a district ranger at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. "If these guys were a cat with nine lives, they just used up three of them."

Since delivering one of the great Olympic upsets at the 2000 Sydney Games, the 35-year-old Gardner has had a history of harrowing escapes.

In 2002, he became stranded while snowmobiling in the Wyoming and lost a toe. Then in 2004, he was struck by an automobile while riding a motorcycle. Back in third grade, he punctured his abdomen with an arrow at a class show-and-tell.

The lesson, Gardner said, is "hopefully teach people to be smarter about the choices they make."

In his latest brush, Gardner was a passenger in a Cirrus SR 22 with pilot Randy Brooks and brother Leslie. They were looking at a houseboat from the air when the plane dipped into the water, Garfield County public information officer Becki Bronson said.

"The plane went from 150 mph to none in about 2 seconds," Gardner told CNN. "Within about a half a second is when we knew that things went from a beautiful day, a beautiful afternoon, all the way to a pretty bad situation."

Authorities were uncertain of the exact location of the crash and were investigating the cause.

When he went into the water, Gardner said he quickly grabbed his coat. He remembered how cold he'd gotten after getting lost on the snowmobile five years ago.

That's when the Brooks brothers told him to drop everything.

"It's either your stuff or your life," Gardner recalled them saying. "I was really struggling."

Gardner said he wasn't a good swimmer and was worried he'd be left alone in the water.

"I said, 'Don't leave me. Come back and get me," he said. "They said, 'Hey, just relax, calm down. We're not leaving you. Get on your back, and start doing basically backstroke."

Gardner said he didn't get too nervous about the water temperature. It "wasn't really anything I thought about because we were safe. We had just survived a plane wreck."

Once they reached the shore, Gardner said, there were other concerns. He was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans, having kicked off his shoes to swim, and there were limited supplies.

"We came together and we said, 'OK, let's try to dry our clothes out before the sun goes down.'

"Nobody is going to see us before sunset because most of the boats had already gone by. I said let's dry everything out," he said.

Gardner said they tried to build a small shelter out of the rocks. The three men huddled through the night to keep warm.

Once they were rescued, Gardner and the brothers called a relative to take them for medical attention.

"Miraculously, the three sustained no life-threatening injuries, mainly suffering from hypothermia injuries to their feet," Garfield County authorities said in a statement.

Gardner stunned the Olympics seven years ago when he earned the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling by ending Alexander Karelin's 13-year international winning streak. In 2004 in Athens, Gardner won the bronze medal, and in wrestling tradition, left his shoes on the mat as a symbolic way of announcing his retirement.

In 2004, Gardner was on a motorcycle and going to wrestling practice when he crashed in Colorado Springs, Colo. He sustained no serious injuries even though he went over the top of his handlebars after his bike collided with a car. Gardner came away with abrasions to his left side and a sore right heel.

In grade school, he injured himself with an arrow while his parents were out of town. He was taken to the emergency room and a doctor said Gardner had just missed puncturing a vital organ.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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