The fittest focus

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Dave Shively

Dave Shively's outdoors column appears Sundays in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Contact him at 871-4253 or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com.

— During American wrestling icon Rulon Gardner's speech at Steamboat Springs High School on Thursday, the massive Greco-Roman gold medalist turned motivational speaker talked about what drove him to be the man he knew he could become.

But not until late in the speech - in his sixth of seven steps to tapping personal potential - did he reveal his most telling battle. No, it wasn't the one about winning Olympic gold against the 15-pound Russian baby who would grow up to become undefeated wrestling legend Alexander Karelin. It was the one against himself, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Gardner used only a few brief sentences to talk about the backcountry outing on Valentine's Day 2002 that almost cost him his life. Separated from two friends while snowmobiling in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, Gardner lodged his sled in the river of a tight gully. After trying in vain to hike out, he slipped while pulling the 600-pound machine and plunged chest deep into the river. Wearing only a T-shirt, sweatshirt and a fleece top, Gardner decided to hunker down for the night in a clump of trees. He spent the next 15 hours in temperatures that dipped to 25 degrees below zero, trying to stay awake until a search plane spotted him the next morning. When the LifeFlight helicopter eventually found (it was delayed, ironically, by the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City), his core temperature was only 80 degrees.

Doctors sawed off his frozen right boot to save his frostbitten feet and all but one of his toes.

Gardner told the youth wrestlers who gathered around him Thursday about his recovery. Although being told he would never walk or wrestle again, he went on to win bronze in 2004.

On Friday, I asked Gardner about the snowmobiling incident.

Waking up to a snowy Steamboat morning, Gardner said he now realizes just how "pretty and deadly" winter weather can be.

He said that night in the wilderness is always on his mind, and he now is religious about making sure he's prepared and taking the right equipment. This includes the one vital element that could have made all the difference - the ability to make a fire. Sounding like a polished motivational speaker, Gardner said he chalked up his survival to setting a single-minded goal and sticking to it.

"I never thought I'd die, but I knew if I stopped fighting I was going to," he said. After realizing he could not expend energy wrestling his sled or even pulling off his boots to massage his feet, he accepted his inability to save himself and knew he needed to make it through the night without falling asleep.

Feeling your body freeze and life begging to escape from your body begs the question, "Just how much fight would I have?"

I plan to hold on to a lighter so I never have to ask.

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