'It's either your coat or your life'

Updated: March 9, 2007, 4:06 PM ET
By Graham Bensinger | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner survived a plane crash into the Good Hope Bay on the Utah-Arizona border over the weekend of Feb. 23. Gardner talks about the crash and what followed with ESPN.com contributor Graham Bensinger.

Question from Graham Bensinger: Take me through what happened, starting with how the idea even came about to get on the plane.

Answer from Rulon Gardner: A friend of mine, Les Brooks, asked if I'd be interested in going for a ride in an aircraft named a Cirrus SR22. He told me his brother was going out to take a look at his house. I said I'd love to come. It's a very nice aircraft. I've flown it once before. I adore the aircraft.

I got up at nine o'clock Saturday morning and drove down to Spanish Fork, Utah. I met up with Les and his brother, Randy. We brought the aircraft out of the hangar, then to the runway, and took off. We were headed southeast from Salt Lake City. We were just going to see Lake Powell. We landed at a place called Bullfrog and played in the water. We went to his houseboat and spent about two hours there.

We then went back to the airport and took off again. We headed north. We planned to do something called skimming. We were about 30-40 feet above the water and it was amazing and beautiful. It's very safe. Randy has 3,000 hours as a pilot, so there's no concern about safety or any of that stuff.

We came up to some very scary turns so we decided to gain some elevation. We went over the top of these canyons for about a mile. After that, Randy said we'd drop back in. We dropped down about 300-400 feet. We were coming in right above the water. As we were coming in, we kind of made a left-hand turn. As we were making that turn, we kept dropping altitude. I felt pretty comfortable. Then, all of the sudden, we were like 15-20 feet above [the water]. I'm like, "Hey!" But I didn't say anything out loud because he's a very seasoned pilot and he knows what he's doing. Within 5 to 6 feet of the water, his brother said watch out for the wheel. "Hey, your wheel!" Right as he said that, I remember Randy reacting a little bit. He grabbed the stick, but it was too late.

The back rear tire hit the water first. After the first impact, we kind of skipped. The second impact pulled us forward. We snapped forward and downward as we hit that second time.

Q: Was Randy aware he was getting that close to the water?

A: No, he wasn't. I don't think he was at all. If he would have thought about it, he would have realized it was too dangerous and pulled up. I think he was checking his instruments. You have a magnetic and an electrical compass. He was checking both of them. Realistically, I think he just lost track of what he was doing.

Q: As the plane hit the water, what happened to it?

A: As the plane hit the water, I remember feeling the impact of the first hit. After the first impact, it bounced a little bit and pulled the front end of the aircraft over. We really had no option. The aircraft couldn't get enough balance to be able to react and come up. It continued the downward motion into the water.

Q: How far into the water did it go?

A: It wasn't a matter of submerging itself in the water. We went from 150 mph to basically 0 mph within a matter of one or two seconds. The impact was very violent and very forceful. As it made the impact, the aircraft kind of circled a little bit. It started to fill up with water.

Q: Was everyone still conscious?

A: We were. I remember when we hit everybody yelled, "Seat belts off!" Then, we opened the doors. Randy and Les had already jumped into the water. Before I jumped, I grabbed my coat and wallet -- the things I need to be safe. I had the things that I thought were important. Basically, I didn't want to be stranded without a coat again.

When I jumped in, my head went underwater for a second. I'm bobbing my head back up and saying I need help. I asked them to come back and help me. They said to relax and focus. They told me to drop my coat and wallet. I said, "I can't lose my wallet or coat." They said, "It's either your coat or your life." They told me to get on my back, relax, and swim. I started to do the backstroke.

Gardner on ESPN Radio
ESPN Radio
Appearing on the Dan Patrick Show, Rulon Gardner recapped the crash, swimming through the 44-degree water for an hour and surviving the night. ListenInsider

Q: How would you describe your swimming ability?

A: I'm definitely not an Olympic swimmer! I'm mediocre-to-OK. I can swim freestyle, but I don't have the technique to go long distances. When we looked how far away land was, it was 1 to 2 miles anywhere. We didn't know exactly how far it was … all we knew was it was a heck of a long ways!

Q: How cold was the water?

A: When we jumped in, it felt pretty reasonable. It didn't seem too cold. I didn't realize it was as bad as it was. I found out that the temperature was 43-45 degrees.

Q: When you initially jumped into the water and were struggling, to what extent was that panic setting in?

A: I was 100 percent panicked. I was freaking out. I was absolutely in duress at that point. I got to a point where I basically said, "I can't do this." All I could think about was drowning and not being able to breathe. I definitely did lose focus and panicked.

Q: What was the rest of the swim like?

A: I'm thinking that there was no way that this just happened. I'm thinking there is no way that this is possible. There's no way that I was just in a good aircraft and now that airplane is sinking to the bottom of Lake Powell. It's not possible.

Q: How deserted was the area?

A: We estimated that it took us about two hours to swim [to land]. We crashed around 2:20 p.m. The next time we checked our watches it was 4:30 p.m.

Q: To what extent did you expect to find people when you got to land?

A: You always hope. I saw two boats go by as I was swimming in. I stopped, waved, and tried to get their attention. Nobody saw me.

Q: What did the area look like?

A: It was a lake with mountains and rolling hills. You could pretty well see the whole beach line and tell that there was nobody there. Why would somebody be there in the middle of the winter? If they were camping or boating, you'd see them. Nobody was in the water because it was too cold.

Q: What happened when you got to the beach?

A: I got on the beach and couldn't feel a thing. At that point, I was thinking maybe it was a bad dream because I couldn't feel anything. After about five minutes, I got up and started walking around.

As I walked up to Les and Randy, they were both snuggling. They were so cold because their body heat was so low. I said, "Lets stand up and get some heat from the sun while it's still up. We need to dry our clothes off before the sun goes down." They were shivering. Randy could not talk. His body was starting to shut down.

"I got to a point where I basically said, 'I can't do this.' All I could think about was drowning and not being able to breathe. I definitely did lose focus and panicked."
-- Rulon Gardner on hitting the water after a recent plane crash

Q: What was the night like?

A: It got down to 25 degrees. When we got done with the swim, Les told me that was the worst thing ever. I told him, at about five o'clock in the morning, "You tell me which one was worse: the swim or tonight." At about four in the morning, he said that the swim was nothing compared to this. To me, it was all the same because you have to prepare to live.

Q: To what extent was death a realistic concern?

A: It was a concern, but I didn't think it was realistic. When I got to shore and saw Randy unresponsive, unable to react, and incoherent, it made me think that there's no way that he's going to be able to get through this. We did our best to keep him with us and he came back. We knew that we weren't going to lose him after that. I would get up and start wrestling with him if that's what it takes!

Q: Did you have cell phones?

A: I had my cell phone, but it was completely wet. It vibrated for about three hours until it completely died.

Q: Did you guys discuss a plan for the next day, if you all weren't rescued by then?

A: It was to make it through sunrise. If you make it through sunrise, you're doing really well. That was our No. 1 goal. We just wanted to get to the point where we could see the sun come up.

Q: Did you expect to see a boat when the sun came up?

A: Not expecting, but hoping. We were praying that someone would come over and spot us. Another one of my friends and I were going to go watch some of the UFC fights that night. We thought he would call me, not get ahold of me, and then call Les' wife. We figured they would realize that we were still gone and send search and rescue. We were hoping that by midnight, he would have gotten ahold of somebody and sent someone to rescue us, but it didn't happen. He thought my phone was just off.

Q: When you finally saw the boats in the morning, what was going through your head?

A: They were a half a mile to a mile away. When Randy saw the fisherman, he ran as fast as he could over there.

Q: You wiped out your snowmobile in 2002 and were stranded for nearly 17 hours. You were lucky to only get frostbite and lose a middle toe. In 2004, you were hit by a car while riding your motorcycle. Then, there's this plane crash. Those are three life-threatening situations. When thinking about all three, what goes through your head?

A: Maybe if I would have been a little more precautious.

Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at graham@thegbshow.com

Graham Bensinger | email

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com
Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at graham@thegbshow.com