|At 281 pounds, with most of it concentrated in his upper body (a 54 inch chest) and for the strength needed in Greco-Roman wrestling, Rulon Gardner (91) is an imposing sight. He is also the Olympic champion who did the impossible. He dethroned the three-time Olympic gold medalist in Sydney, Australia, in late September. But to his friends and teammates at Ricks College where he wrestled for two years, and his friends and family in Afton, better known to us in the West as Star Valley, he’s just Rulon, a farmboy from Wyoming.
Never before has a Ricks alumnus received the accolades that have come Rulon’s way.
Here is his story: Take the youngest of nine children growing up "in a Mormon household that believed in eating meals together, being there for one another and working hard," according to an Associated Press story.
Refine the youngster with typical farm chores that included milking cows, hauling bales of hay, and carrying newborn calves to safety.
Give him a taste of victory on the wrestling mats in the 1989 Wyoming state championship for Star Valley High School.
Season him with a national third-place finish his freshman year at Ricks and then the national junior college title his sophomore year.
Add two years of wrestling experience for the University of Nebraska with a fourth-place finish in the NCAA finals.
Then, in late 1994, switch from freestyle to Greco-Roman wrestling and, as national champion in 1995, almost qualify for the 1996 Olympics.
Pile on national and world titles in 1997 and defeat former
Olympic champions in 1998 and make a name for yourself in the Pan American Games.
Qualify for the 2000 Olympics and win the gold medal, awarded personally by Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, who was there to make Olympic history by presenting the medal to Russia’s Alexander Karelin for a fourth time.
Lead the United States Olympic team as its flag bearer for the closing ceremonies of this year’s Games.
Appear on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The David Letterman Show with …, well, you know. Appear with Rosie O’Donnell, Conan O’Brien, and on CNN, and on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" where he won $125,000, half of it going to charity.
Be there as your hometown of less than 1,500 swells to about five times its size on October 12 to see the conquering hero return to his roots.
And what would you say to the assembled throng?
From a platform in front of the Afton Maverik store, you give a tearful thanks. "This medal is not mine. This is all of ours."
That’s the kind of stuff real heroes are made of.
p.s. Another Ricks alumni participated in this year’s Olympics. Marsha Mark Beard (96) placed 22nd in the heptathlon as a member of her native country, Trinidad-Tobago.
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