AFTON – The Rulon Burger is so large it must be shaped in a pizza tin.

Six quarter-pound patties ground together, grilled, served on a custom-ordered bun and topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion.

Only the brave have completed the challenge: Consume the burger, plus a boat of fries and 44-ounce drink, in 20 minutes. The sandwich's namesake, Olympic gold- and bronze-medalist Rulon Gardner, can finish in 8 minutes, 23 seconds.

The burger is a beast, but then again, everything about Rulon is larger than life.

He didn't just win Olympic gold; he defeated an unbeatable foe, Russian Alexander Karelin, who hadn't lost a Greco-Roman wrestling match in 13 years.

Five thousand people with balloons and homemade signs lined Main Street when Rulon returned home from the 2000 Sydney Games. He made the late-night television circuit -- Letterman, Leno, O'Brien -- cartwheeling onto the stage.

For years he overcame a string of near-death experiences: impaled by an arrow in grade school; stranded by a snowmobile accident, losing a toe to frostbite in 2002; hit by a car while riding his motorcycle in 2004; forced to swim in 44-degree water when his plane crashed into Lake Powell, Utah, three years later.

So when it came to losing weight, he went as big as you can go: He joined NBC's "The Biggest Loser."

At Rulon's Burger Barn, inside Gardner's Country Village gas station and convenience store, the burger lives on.

Located just off U.S. Highway 89, Country Village is one of the first buildings you'll see on your way into Afton, population 1,818, coming from the south. The restaurant has seven booths, with framed articles and photos from the Olympic years on the walls.

The idea began with brothers Rulon and Russell Gardner in the early 2000s. Russell Gardner, principal at local Swift Creek High School, opened the Country Village in 2003. The two talked about adding a food venue the community would like. They considered franchises -- Subway, A&W, Dairy Queen -- but nothing seemed right. They went local instead and called it "barn" after their dairy farming roots, incorporating an Olympic theme for Rulon's recent success.

Burgers were named Gold (quarter-pound bacon cheddar), Silver (Swiss) and Bronze (ham and cheddar). Then came the Rulon Burger.

They tried a 2-pound patty, which was too big. They went down a half pound.

They found a bakery in Idaho Falls that could custom-bake buns large enough. They set a time limit they thought reasonable, 20 minutes.

In spring 2004, the year Rulon competed in the Athens Olympics, the restaurant opened to a crowded house. Radio, television and ESPN reporters showed up to watch Gardner eat. Five names were drawn from a hat for the chance to compete with him.

That's when Rulon tore through burger, fries and Pepsi in less than nine minutes. As Russell Gardner remembers it, no one else finished.

Ever since, Boy Scout troops, wrestling teams, families and tourists have stopped there to try the challenge. The prize: a signed Rulon Gardner Olympic Champion T-shirt and your name on Rulon's Wall of Fame.

One such champion is Jeff Hunsaker of Orem, Utah. His name's painted on the wall next to his winning time: 19 minutes, one second.

Hunsaker, his brother and high school buddies ski in Jackson every year, and on the way, they make an annual stop at the Burger Barn. Two years ago, he paid his $16.99, cut the burger into fourths and asked restaurant employees to time him.

"Failure's not an option in my mind when it comes to things like this," Hunsaker said. "… I was going to make it. If I had to throw up, so be it, I was going to get it down."

The last fourth was killer, he said, but Hunsaker swallowed it all.

"It tasted great," he said.

Manager Tammy Martinz would like to point out that the Rulon Burger and Rulon's appearance on "The Biggest Loser" are of no correlation. Anyone who has tried the challenge will tell you: It's not something you attempt more than once.

Russell Gardner said the burger and its challenge are part of the restaurant's family atmosphere, something he and his brother wanted from the beginning. Most often, a family will order it to share.

"It's fun," he said. "We make it light-hearted."

On "The Biggest Loser," Rulon competes with business partner Justin Pope. The duo -- the "yellow team" -- won a 5K treadmill challenge the first episode and have had four weeks of immunity. Tonight is the first night they could face elimination. Rulon weighed in at 474 pounds the first week, up from 286 in his Olympic years.

Russell Gardner said he and his siblings have all struggled with weight. Virginia Gardner, the matriarch of the family, first recognized her son's weight gain last year, when she saw him inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He had gained 200 pounds since his retirement in 2004.

"It wasn't Rulon. It wasn't him," Virginia Gardner said. "… You couldn't even see his neckline."

With filming ongoing, she hasn't been able to talk to her son. But on TV she has watched him run, punch and sweat his way through with Pope.

"It's a good program, and it's something that he needed," Virginia Gardner said. "… I'm sure that he will maintain his weight. That's part of his competitiveness."

When a larger-than-life, small-town guy repeatedly hits the spotlight, reaction falls one of two ways: praise or rejection.

Rulon and his wife live in Logan, Utah, where he runs a gym with Pope. Utah now claims Rulon as one of its favorite sons.

In Afton, Mayor Loni Hillyard is watching the show, wishing Rulon well. But some residents feel sour. They said he doesn't come around much anymore.

"To get on there, that's more notoriety," said resident Dex Gardner, of distant relation to the family. "He's not the hero he once was around here."

Resident and town clerk Lisa Hokanson grew up with the Gardners and has watched "The Biggest Loser" for years. From Afton, she's cheering.

"I think he's going to do great. He's competitive and he's so likeable. I think a lot of people like him and won't vote him off," she said.

For Hunsaker, Rulon has always been an inspiration. Hunsaker followed his wrestling career, and now, he hopes to lose 30 pounds himself.

"I'm now watching the show because of him and being inspired, frankly," he said.

Hunsaker and buddies will return to the Burger Barn next week. He's urging his brother to try the challenge this time.

Just as they continue their tradition, Russell Gardner said the Burger Barn will keep its Rulon Burger. Although the burger will always be one and a half pounds, packed between plate-sized buns, the Burger Barn employees are rooting for Rulon to lose big.

And besides, they said, you could always order the salad or teriyaki chicken.

Reach features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or margaret.matray@trib.com.

 

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