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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS | RANDY HARVEY

Gardner's Path to Glory Is Great American Story

September 28, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — How did Rulon Gardner, a farm boy from Afton, Wyo., end the 13-year winning streak of Russia's Alexander "The Great" Karelin, a Greco-Roman wrestling legend, and get to the top of the medals stand at the Summer Olympics?

It's an American story, not a typical one, but still an American story.

It begins in 1885, when Rulon's great-great-grandfather, Archibald Gardner, sent the youngest of his 11 wives from Utah to Wyoming.

Archibald had immigrated from Scotland to Canada, where he became a Mormon. He later moved to Utah, where he became a friend of Brigham Young's. When the government began to crack down on polygamy, Archibald divided his family, sending each wife to a different location. (According to family legend, Archibald also sent away one of his sons for repeatedly sneaking into town and consorting with what descendants call an "undesirable" woman.)

Mary Larson, who was born in Denmark, was the wife who was sent farthest because she was the hardiest. She and her eight children traveled 285 miles to Wyoming's Star Valley. She rode in a covered wagon with her 18-month-old baby. The other seven children walked. It was winter, the temperature some nights dipping to 40 below. They slept in a tent.

With Archibald's directions and money, Mary opened a saw mill and a lumberyard. His other 10 wives did the same in their new homes. Archibald became a roving foreman, going from one mill to the next to check on their operations.

Mary's did better than some, and one of her sons, Clarence, grew up to be Afton's mayor, a state senator and a church leader.

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How did Rulon Gardner pull off one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, ranking with the U.S. "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet ice hockey team in 1980, and get to the top of the medal stand?

"A close family, a solid work ethic and a deep belief in the word of God," said Reed Gardner, Rulon's father.

Gardner's victory was stunning, especially to Karelin. When Gardner, 29, tried to put his arm around him while they posed for photographers after the medals ceremony, the 33-year-old Russian super-heavyweight stepped aside. Head bowed, he walked off the floor with his bouquet of flowers drooping in his hands behind him.

As it turned out, he's a sore loser. But how would anyone have known? He hadn't lost since the 1987 Soviet championships. He hadn't even been scored on in 10 years.

The only other time he wrestled against Gardner was in the 1997 World Championships. Karelin, so strong that he once carried a refrigerator on his back up seven flights of stairs, lifted Gardner and threw him on his head--three times.

"The first two times, I landed on my face," Gardner said. "The second time, my feet almost hit my spine. That's not a healthy thing."

After his son finished talking to reporters, Reed Gardner, wearing a USA Wrestling cap and a T-shirt with Rulon's picture on it, stayed behind to answer questions about the family history.

Reed was 7 when his father--Rulon's grandfather--contracted typhoid fever and had to quit working. He was in his 20s. He died seven years later.

Clarence helped raise Reed. A prominent man, he could have given him an easy adolescence. But that wasn't the Gardner way.

Reed and his mother rented out the family dairy farm while he made extra money by working for other farmers. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was able to afford the 80 acres that his father had deeded to him.

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How did Rulon Gardner become the first American to win a Greco-Roman gold medal in a non-boycotted Olympics and get to the top of the medals stand?

"We are a working family," he said. "I was the youngest of nine children. When I was a kid, I could barely pick up a bale of hay. By the time my senior year came around, I could grab four bales of hay--100 pounds each.

"My dad would take me out to feed the cows. He gave me a bucket of milk and I had to carry it. It would get all over me. It was cold, freezing. When I got done with high school, I was carrying four buckets at a time."

Rulon, his four brothers (one died of cancer as a teenager) and his sisters had no choice but to work if the family was to keep the farm. To make ends meet, Reed drove a truck, delivering molasses to ranchers.

"We live not far from Jackson Hole," Reed said. "The city keeps encroaching on us, attracting tourists. We resent it. But money talks."

The eldest son runs the farm now. He has about 160 head of cattle.

"Let me tell you something," Reed said. "When you pour a glass of milk, it costs you about $1.25. You know what we get for it? Three cents.

"I would have sold the farm a long time ago if all I had been interested in was money. But I wanted it to pass on to my sons. Our family has too much history in that land to quit now."

In 1989, Star Valley celebrated the centennial (plus a few years) of the arrival of white settlers. Archibald Gardner had 48 children by eight of his wives, and, now, he has 20,000 progeny.

One of them is a gold medalist. And that is an American story.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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