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Rulon's Big Adventure, A Final Installment



America's newest hero Rulon Gardner stood baling hay to a long-line of Holsteins pushed against the metal grades at his father's farm. It was a chore he had done thousands of times while growing up. Now, at age 29, he stood there with an Olympic gold medal wrapped around his neck and a now familiar Olympic-Team warm-up with 'USA' boldly displayed on his back. NBC was filming him for the Today Show. Soon, CNN. Then, another group for an award's show that will air on ESPN next week. As light snow swirled in the morning air, and as heavy gray clouds rolled over the Salt Mountains to the west, he talked as he was being filmed. When the cameraman stopped, a question popped up: "Did you have butterflies against Karelin?" He stopped pitching the hay and said: "Yeah. But nothing like I'm experiencing now." When a farm boy leaves home, it is said he never leaves for good. Fresh from five days in New York, outwardly Gardner finally seemed at home on his father's farm. But the day of his homecoming had arrived. More than 5,000 people were waiting to see their hometown hero. Friends and former foes would greet him. Past memories, some painful when he was called 'fatso', would filter through emotions and be buried under his newfound famed. Since he had touched down in the U.S. nine days earlier, he had implored that going home was the one thing continuous on his mind; but knew he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet and greet people he had only seen through the TV set. His brother Russell would say that morning: "Rulon always comes home after a big wrestling match. It doesn't matter when and where. After the 1997 Worlds, he flew into Colorado and drove nine hours and arrived at 3 a.m. He just wanted to get home. Coming home gives him a chance to relax, I think. This is different." The circus came to town October 13, in a joyous crescendo to Gardner's whirlwind tour. It left an indelible mark on the Star Valley in west central Wyoming. More than 100 media attended, including 30 TV cameras. The main street of Afton (population 1,481) held more than its latest census by threefold and had people on rooftops and hoods of cars, all trying to get a glimpse at their new king. Gardner, with his wife Stacy walked about a half-mile through the six-deep crowd carrying an American flag and waving, reporters and police circling around them. At times, in the thick of Gardner's walk, the noise grew to a din. Some people were crying. Most were yelling, pushing against each other, raising cameras to take pictures in vain. Some were merely in awe. Two young girls were jumping up and down: "He came. He came. He finally came," as if Santa Claus had indeed come to town. It was an experience Gardner later described as "mind blowing and crazy" and "equally as impressive" on him as his win against Karelin. At the end of his walk, he was greeted by a home-made Egyptian carriage, lifted up on the shoulders of former teammates, coaches and area wrestlers. Then, paraded back through the crowd to the beat of drums and trumpets, various chants piercing through the cool country air: "RU-LON!" "U-S-A" It was if a great warrior had arrived back from war. Actually he had---but with gold and a 24-karat grin. He was paraded up to a grandstand where proclamations and speeches by friends, family and political leaders arose. Eventually, the big countryman, with yet a bigger heart, would address the massive gathering with tears and a cracking voice. "This medal is not mine. This part of you all, and part of America," he said. "So, thank you, Star Valley. Thank you America." It is no wonder America has fallen in love with this gentle giant. As part of the ceremony, Gardner was provided a slice of immortality when he was provided his own street name. It will be the road that goes past his old high school. "America is starving for a guy like Rulon Gardner," family friend Danny Schwab would say. Schwab was mostly responsible for helping raise the more than $20,000 to get Gardner's family down to Australia. Later, Gardner would concede: "Without my family being down in Australia, I doubt if I would have won the gold medal. I really believe that. They were an inspiration." The Gardners are a close-knit family. It was not an easy life for Virginia and Reed Gardner, they will tell you. And, dairy farming is 365-day a year job, says Rollin Gardner, Rulon's oldest brother and now mainstay on the family farm. "Life has been anything but normal since this all happened," said Reed Gardner, Rulon's father. "The Valley is sure proud of that boy. The family went down to Sydney with a hope, but never expected this would happen. One trip down the main street of Jefferson Street in Afton and a talk with locals provides enough evidence that Rulon has become bigger than life. "We're all one big family here," said one shop owner, who wished to claim anonymity . "We all look out for each other. Now, we're just looking out a little bit more for Rulon." Three hours after the grand entrance on a tractor and his trip down the main drag of Afton, Rulon was in his element signing autographs under a tent that was serving free bar-b-que sandwiches, corn, chips, and, of course, milk. He signed autographs for one hour before being swept away to a stage where locals provided custom performances including an original 'Rulon Song'. "Our way to welcome him home. These people just love him," said Mayor Jerry Hanson, who planned the parade. After a press conference, a few live interviews with regional newscasts out of Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, he departed for a long-last meal with his family. It was a date that was supposed to be met down in Sydney after his big win. That was planned before the circus started…and naturally, has been going and going. After overnighting in Salt Lake City, he departed for Virginia and a weekend golf tournament and will land in New York next week for an appearance on an Olympic celebrity "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." "I left for Sydney more than a month ago. Just me," said Gardner. "Now, I don't know what it is---it's just crazy. I know that." Reed, a simple but insightful man, summed up the past fortnight: "Our life will get back to normal sometime. Rulon, well, I think his life has changed forever."
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