AFTON, Wyo. Since staging one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history last month, Rulon Gardner has been on national television shows and has made numerous stops since his return to the United States from Australia.
But on Oct. 12 the Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist was finally where he truly wanted to be. He was home.
And the valley in which he milked cows on the family dairy farm, baled hay and attended Church services as a Mormon boy seemed to open wide its arms to its home-grown hero. On a cold, snowy afternoon in the Star Valley community of Afton, Wyo., residents LDS and non-LDS closed down businesses and schools to line Main Street. Waving American flags, some 5,000 in a town of 1,500 cheered the gold medalist as he entered town atop a fire engine. He then hopped on a farm tractor with his wife, Stacy, and drove to the edge of the throng, where he jumped off, grabbed a large American flag and began greeting children and youth lining the route.
Once he made it to the make-shift grandstand, he was greeted by Afton Mayor Jerry Hansen, who also introduced Gardner's family, including his parents, Reed and Virginia Gardner of the Salt River Ward, Afton Wyoming Stake. (Rulon and Stacy Gardner are members of the Colorado Springs [Colo.] 5th Ward.) Also on the stand were Elder Ronald Hammond, an Area Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sandi, as well as members of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Games to be held in Salt Lake City.
In response to the cheers, and his own tears, the wrestler held up his gold medal for everyone to see. "Wow!" was all he could utter for several moments. Then, after finally being able to offer thanks, he added, "There are so many great people in this valley who don't get recognition. I want to thank you. When I want to find happiness and come to a place where everyone loves me, I come back home.
"This medal is not mine," he continued. "It's all of ours."
As the Olympic champion spoke, clouds covered the sun that had come out during the late morning. The wind picked up as snow and sleet pelted the crowd. But few headed for cover. They just opened umbrellas. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime event to have happen in this little valley," said Ivan Johns of the Smoot Ward, as he stood with his wife, Jean.
"We're proud a hometown boy could do so well," Sister Johns added. Then, in speaking of the valley that includes a large percentage of Latter-day Saints but also several other faiths, she related, "Our community has really come together. We love each other for what we are, for being Americans."
Junior high school teacher Neil Hokanson of the Thayne (Wyo.) 2nd Ward sees the Olympic victory as a way to foster self-motivation in area youth. "I think they see him as an example of someone who set a goal and didn't let anything stop him from reaching that goal. It gives them something to be proud of. In a little place like this you can become someone. Even if you don't win a gold medal you have your personal goals."
A history teacher, he has emphasized to his students that they are not only living history, they are also a part of this history. This goes without saying as representatives of media outlets from throughout the country roamed Afton during the day, even taking part in a town barbecue.
"He's going to open doors for the missionaries," the athlete's mother told the Church News during a brief break in activity. In Sydney, she related, "People said, 'There are so many [in your family]. You're so clean-cut. Do you happen to be LDS?' "
Sister Gardner recalled how her son was teased when he was a child and how he once struggled with reading. He overcame, she said, with the help of family and a belief "that Heavenly Father is watching over you." Today, her son is not only a gold medalist, but also a graduate of the University of Nebraska. Sister Gardner, herself, became a registered nurse at age 50 after attending Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho.
During two press conferences during the day, media representatives naturally asked her son about his victory and his future plans. He politely answered their questions but repeatedly emphasized the role of his parents and the community in his life. Calling his victory a "we effort," the 29-year-old Star Valley High School graduate credited family members, teachers, coaches and other youth mentors in his life. "All the way through life, it's a team effort. No individual does this on his own," he said.
He also refused to be called a hero. "I am what I am, a wrestler. Because you win a sporting event, you're not a hero. Parents should be more heroes than me."
Rulon Gardner was not alone in receiving home-grown praise.
Another Church member, Laura Berg, brought home a gold medal from the Sydney Games. On the women's USA Softball Team, she drove in the winning run in the gold-medal victory over Japan. It was her second gold medal; she won gold as a member of the USA Softball Team in Atlanta in 1996.
For her 2000 gold medal, she was honored by a local elementary school and businesses in California. She also shared her Olympic experience with members of the Downey 3rd Ward, Downey California Stake, during a meeting. The victory, she said, "was more exciting the second time. We had to fight so hard to get it," she said.
Since her return home, she said, hundreds of friends and family members have shared her excitement. "They are happy for me," she said. "I have received tons of E-mails from my friends and a lot of phone calls."
Utahns were thrilled with the gold medal brought home by Natalie Williams, a forward for the WNBA Utah Starzz. The City of Taylorsville held a reception in her honor. At the event, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt declared Oct. 13 Natalie Williams Day and State Sen. Mike Waddoups presented a resolution congratulating her.
Salt Lake native Courtney Johnson, a member of the Sunnyvale Ward, Los Altos California Stake, won a silver medal as a member of the US women's Water Polo Team.
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