Hometown Hails Olympic Hero

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner acknowledges crowd during homecoming celebration.
Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner, once a chubby kid ridiculed by bullies as "Fatso," was hailed as a hero Thursday in a homecoming that drew thousands.

Gardner, a hulking man as big as he is gentle, paraded through the downtown of this western Wyoming community where he grew up in celebration of his Greco-Roman wrestling triumph over Alexander Karelin, one of the greatest upsets in the history of the games.

"This medal is not mine," he said, holding the gold off his 54-inch chest. "This is all of ours."

Gardner, who said he uses the childhood insults as motivation, won the heavyweight class last month at the Sydney Olympics by upsetting Karelin, the Zeus of world wrestling. Karelin had not lost an international match in 13 years until Gardner's 1-0 victory.

Gardner, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the Olympic training facilities are, became an instant celebrity.

"Still a lot for me to swallow, all these experiences," he said. "When I left for Sydney, it was just me. When I came back I was an Olympian. It's great."

His gold medal hanging from his thick neck, Gardner drove from his family farm outside of town up to the edge of the community of 1,630 in a tractor. He rode into town on a fire truck, dismounted as thousands of red, white and blue balloons were released, and walked with an American flag through the five-block-long downtown.

Lining the middle of the four-lane street wetted by morning snow showers were children, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, out-of-town hunters and residents from up and down the scenic mountain valley, all bundled up against the chilly air.

The 6-foot-3, 286-pound Gardner then was hoisted on a thronelike chair on two long poles called a "Greco Roman coach" that was carried by former high school wrestlers and coaches. He was dropped off at a stage set up on a street between a car dealership and convenience store-gas station, and against the backdrop of a mountain originally known as Gardner Peak after Rulon's great-great-grandfather, one of the original valley settlers.

During a 20-minute speech that began with him choking back tears until he decided to "put on his game face," Gardner thanked his family, coaches and all the valley residents.

"When I want to find happiness and find a place where I know everybody loves me, I come back home," he said to cheers.

Gardner's feat has left an impression on the entire Star Valley, a 45-mile stretch of land touted locally as the "Little Switzerland of America" and consisting of about a dozen small farming towns and some 8,500 residents.

"It's an honor," said 18-year Afton resident Carla Lowe. "He's brought honor to all of us people. I couldn't be more proud of him if he was one of my own kids."

Until now, the main claim of Afton, one of only three incorporated towns in the valley, was a huge ach made out of elk antlers spanning its main street.

Six-year-old Travis Long, a portly kid himself from Afton, probably summed up best how the rest of the nation and world see Gardner: "He's tough."

Following the 1 1/2-hour ceremony, Gardner walked a few blocks to the Star Valley High School for a press conference, where he talked about his future and taking his wrestling to a level "where Karelin is" and see "how big the fire burns inside of me."

Before the press conference, he stopped in at the school's gym - just big enough hold a basketball court and a stage.

"That old little gym in there," he said.

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