SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rulon Gardner wants his Olympic rings back. And his wife’s pink handgun.
The decorated wrestler who rose to fame at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with his gold-medal-winning upset of Russian Alexander Karelin has endured physical hardships and financial setbacks in the years since his victory, but Gardner is making a play to secure some of his legacy.
An Oct. 27 auction of his most valuable belongings, which were seized by authorities to settle his debts, has been postponed indefinitely as a bankruptcy trustee decides whether Gardner can keep any of the possessions he treasures most.
“The Olympic rings and other stuff, those are the things that really matter to me,” Gardner told The Associated Press.
Bankruptcy records show Gardner, 41, owes a major creditor nearly $3 million on a household income of $37,392. He disputes the debt, saying he was defrauded by a recently convicted business associate into co-signing a loan to develop a hot-spring resort near his hometown of Afton, Wyo.
Court records show Elizabeth P. Johnson, of Bozeman, Mont., began serving a 34-month sentence in April for fraud and money laundering. She owes Gardner nearly $300,000 in loan payments that he paid, plus more than $1 million to his major lender, which has piled interest and penalties on Gardner.
“When you beat me down, I just fight harder,” said Gardner, who moved to Wellsville, Utah, several years ago. “I’m a fighter. Game on.”
The 300-pound fighter is resigned to losing some of his valuables to an eventual auction. They include a Ford Excursion SUV, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, dozens of watches and knives, his wrestling shoes and autographed memorabilia.
Gardner says many of the 40 watches are fake Rolexes.
“At the end of the day, it’s only stuff,” he said.
Gardner’s new bankruptcy lawyer, Anna Drake, said she anticipates they will make an offer to repurchase some of the assets, but added, “He really needs to pick and choose and buy back the stuff that really matters to him.”
Cache County sheriff’s deputies raided Gardner’s house Aug. 15, even searching his attic and crawl space. On the list of items for seizure were Gardner’s gold medal from Sydney and a bronze medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics, but sheriff’s Deputy Brad Slater said the medals were nowhere to be found.
Gardner previously put up the medals as collateral for personal loans and they will remain out of play in an auction, Drake said.
Gardner’s finances were strained by the real-estate loan, she said. He was paying as much as $36,000 a month to satisfy WestCoast Lending Group Inc. until he couldn’t pay more.
The payments and financial demands of his training center in Logan were “bleeding him dry,” Drake said.
Yet Gardner believes “things are going to smooth out,” he said. “It really hurt me, but you pick up the pieces and move forward.”
He’s risen from near-disasters before. Gardner nearly died after a night stranded in the Wyoming wilderness with his snowmobile in 2002, losing a middle toe on his right foot to frostbite. Two years later, he shrugged off a motorcycle accident before the Athens Games.
More recently, there was a terrifying plane crash in 2007, when Gardner, a pilot and the pilot’s brother plunged into Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. They had to swim for an hour in 44-degree water to reach a distant shore, spending a night without fire or shelter before rescue.
Bankruptcy trustee Davis Miller said he agreed to postpone Gardner’s auction indefinitely, but “an auction is still a definite possibility.”
“The question of how and when property will be liquidated remains up in the air at this time,” Miller told the AP last week, saying he was trying to “resolve contested ownership issues with respect to some of the property.”
Gardner says authorities were wrong to seize any of his wife’s possessions, including her gun.
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