Gold medalist returns to Wyoming a hero

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    By Cameron Sawyer

    AFTON, Wyo. — Rulon Gardner came home Thursday, Oct. 12, to a Norman Rockwell celebration in this small town in western Wyoming.

    Thousands of people cheered as the 29-year-old Gardner triumphantly paraded down Afton’s crowded Main Street.

    He was carrying the American flag and holding the gold medal he won in Sydney for Greco-Roman wrestling — as the Star Valley High School Band played the theme song from “Rocky.”

    Gardner’s gold medal came from his Sept. 27 match against Russian wrestling superstar Aleksandr Karelin. Gardner defeated Karelin in overtime to win the Super Heavyweight title match.

    Gardner’s win was a feat, considering Karelin had not lost a wrestling match in 13 years. No one had even scored on him in 10 years — until he faced Gardner.

    Local and national television crews and newspapers lined up shoulder to shoulder to cover the event.

    A good friend of Gardner’s, Kristi Schwab, was waiting in the crowd for Gardner to arrive.

    “We had to call TV stations before he left to come and do stories on him. Now the phones are ringing off the hook,” Schwab said.

    Even though Gardner had received national recognition, he seemed humble.

    “I’m the same person — I hope — that I was when I left here 10 years ago,” he said.

    Gardner fought back the tears as he publicly thanked his family, friends, coaches and the people of Star Valley for their support.

    “This medal is not mine. It’s all of yours. You were with me in Sydney,” he said.

    Before Gardner left for Sydney, local businesses and residents sold T-shirts and sponsored fund raisers to earn enough money to send Gardner’s family to the Olympics.

    “I don’t think I would have won a medal without my family there,” Gardner said.

    All school children in the Star Valley area were excused from classes early to attend the homecoming.

    During the celebration, Afton Mayor Jerry Hansen presented Gardner with a key to the city.

    “It’s probably the first time I’ve seen it done, and I’ve been in politics since the late 1980s,” Hansen said.

    The city also changed the name of the street that Star Valley High School is on from Braves Boulevard to Rulon Gardner Avenue.

    “I can’t think of a time I have seen something this big. It’s been an incredible feeling throughout the community,” Hansen said.

    After the celebration, Gardner fielded questions from the media in the Star Valley School District Administration offices.

    Gardner spoke about growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how his faith has helped his wrestling.

    “My whole life, religion has always been a part of me,” he said.

    Gardner also spoke about his miraculous performance in the Olympics battling against wrestling icon Karelin.

    “I didn’t know I could wrestle him at that ability and level. It’s hard to believe I even beat him,” Gardner said.

    Afton resident Dustin Merrill captured the feeling of the day.

    “He left a farm boy and came back a hero,” he said.

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