Gardner’s heartwarming Olympic gold turns local resident into celebrity |

Gardner’s heartwarming Olympic gold turns local resident into celebrity

In a Summer Games that saw Marion Jones win a record five medals and the women’s soccer team settle for the silver medal, it was a Greco-Roman wrestler from the Wyoming farming town of Afton who stole the show.

But while many Olympic observers are calling Rulon Gardner’s gold medal upset of Russia’s Aleksandr Karelin the shocker of the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, sister Gerrie Gardner of Gardnerville knows better.

“I don’t think a lot of people felt he could beat Karelin because the Russian was so strong mentally and physically,” said Gerrie, a Sierra Nevada cardiologist who frequently works out of Barton Memorial Hospital. “I’m really proud of my brother and I knew he could do it. It was a family thing. It was all about having support from a family and lots of talent.”

The Gardner family, however, is no ordinary one. They take out a whole section at wrestling meets. Including Rulon, 29, and Gerrie, there are eight brothers and sisters – all of whom were there along with their parents to watch the former dairy farmhand make history.

“We were right down in front because right before Rulon wrestled the front row opened up,” Gerrie said. “We were yelling so loud that Karelin looked over at us. I think he was getting agitated because we were so loud.”

Rulon’s siblings also deserve some of the credit for prepping the youngest of the eight children during their frequent family wrestling matches on their farm near Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“Heck yeah, we were wrestling everybody. You know how kids are,” Gerrie said. “But since I’m much older than him, he was just a little kid when I was in high school. When he was in high school he used to show me how much stronger he was than I.”

Karelin losing is tantamount to the “Dream Team” being beaten in basketball. It just doesn’t happen. The Russian heavyweight had gone 13 years since his last defeat. In between were three Olympic gold medals and an incredible 10-year streak of not being scored upon.

He was such an overwhelming favorite going into the gold medal match that Henry Kissinger, IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch and Russian president Vladimir Putin were on hand to offer their congratulations before the final match. Little did they know that they were congratulating the silver medalist.

“It wasn’t a given that I was going to take second before the Olympic Games,” said Rulon during a Tonight Show appearance on Thursday night. “There were quite a few guys that were good, so we all had to go out and battle. I would have been pretty happy with second place and I decided to go out work hard, be strong and never give up and you can be successful.”

Before the match, Gerrie remembers her brother’s game plan: “He told me, ‘I’m going to go wrestle and do my job.’ “

For the past four years, that’s what wrestling has become to Rulon as he trained regularly at Colorado Springs, Colo.

“He knew he was really good in college, finishing fourth in the nation at Nebraska. But he hadn’t reached his full potential … hadn’t been going all out,” Gerrie said. “It was either get busy with it and get going to the Olympics or get a real job.”

Rulon scored the match’s only point when Karelin broke his clench in overtime. His unlikely victory sent coaches jumping into his arms and a cascade of tears from family members and USA fans.

“There was not a dry eye. Everyone I was looking at was crying. It was so incredible,” Gerrie said. “I called my office staff the night it happened. It was so emotional we couldn’t go to sleep. We walked around Sydney all night in total amazement.”

Their amazement was shared back home in the states, where Rulon – the U.S.’s flag bearer at the closing ceremonies – is now making his rounds as the country’s freshest celebrity.

He appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Wednesday night and was David Letterman’s guest on Thursday night. And Sports Illustrated and People Magazine are featuring the 286-pounder in upcoming issues.

“He could stop wrestling now and become a celebrity, but I suspect he’ll continue,” Gerrie said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User