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SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Olympic wrestling gold medalist Rulon Gardner, who shed 188 pounds as a contestant on NBC's hit show "The Biggest Loser," then abruptly quit, said on Wednesday he is contemplating a return to competitive wrestling.
Gardner, 39, a leading contender on this season's edition of "The Biggest Loser: Couples," hugged his trainers and walked off the program during Tuesday's taped broadcast with little explanation other than he was leaving for "personal" reasons.
Gardner, whose weight had ballooned to 474 pounds after retiring from wrestling, went on the reality TV show "to get my life and my health back, and I have accomplished that goal," he said in a statement from a marketing firm that represents him.
"The Biggest Loser: Couples" features two-person teams of morbidly obese contestants who compete to lose the most weight as they are put through rigorous regimens of exercise, dieting and other lifestyle changes.
"I want to thank the trainers and all those connected with the show who helped me in that endeavor," Gardner said in his statement, adding, "Another exciting outcome is that I am strongly considering a return to competitive wrestling."
Gardner, a Wyoming native, said he also had been eager to be back home with his wife, Kamie, in Logan, Utah, where the couple operate a fitness center.
NBC issued a brief statement wishing Gardner well, saying, "Rulon chose to leave the show for personal reasons, and we respected his wishes."
According to an NBC website, Gardner dropped 188 pounds during his 17 weeks on the show, which began taping last year. That would make him 286 pounds -- the amount he says he weighed the year he clinched gold at the Summer Games in Australia.
A member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team in Sydney, Gardner scored a stunning upset victory over Russia's undefeated world champion, Alexander Kareilin.
Gardner spent last weekend at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, working out with wrestlers there, according to a posting on the official U.S. wrestling website TheMat.com.
The site hailed his potential return to the sport and quoted Gardner as looking forward to rejoining the wrestling community in better health.
"I realized I was in severe danger and going down a path where my life could end prematurely," he said.
Gardner's obesity was not his only high-profile brush with death. He made headlines in 2007 when he survived a single-engine plane crash in Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. In a subsequent interview, he said he recalled thinking to himself, "I can't do it. I'm going to die" as he struggled in the frigid water to get to safety.
In 2002, he nearly died from exposure after his snowmobile got stuck in the frozen backwoods of Wyoming.
But two years after that Gardner was back on the wrestling mat winning a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan