ATHENS — Rulon Gardner hastily untied his shoes, his eyes stinging with sweat and tears.
After the referee declared him a 3-0, bronze-medal winner over Iran's Sajad Barzi, Gardner sat down on the center of the mat and took off his size-13 wrestling shoes.
He did it just as he did when he was kid, he said later.
Only Wednesday, at 33, he did it for the last time.
Gardner put his shoes in the center of the mat at Ano Liossia Olympic Hall and walked to his coach, covering his eyes with one hand and gripping the American flag with the other.
His retirement from Greco-Roman wrestling was official. When a wrestler leaves his shoes on the mat, it means he's not coming back.
"Win, lose or draw, I was able to leave my shoes on the mat," Gardner said proudly.
A loss had come earlier in the day, a 4-1 overtime semifinal defeat to Kazakhstan's Georgiy Tsurtsumia, who later won a silver medal. Russia's Khasan Baroev won the gold.
Instead of dwelling on the semifinal defeat, Gardner prepared to win bronze against Barzi, who is 10 years younger and lacked the kind of the incentive driving Gardner.
"There's a big difference leaving the sport with a victory," U.S. Coach Steve Fraser said.
Gardner could have left the sport with his biggest victory four years ago in Sydney when he won gold by defeating Russia's Alexander Karelin in overtime in one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. Karelin was the defending three-time Olympic super-heavyweight gold medalist at the time.
Overnight, Gardner became a sports hero. A humble farm boy from Wyoming who had been teased as a child because he was overweight and struggled in the classroom captured the spirit of the Olympics.
"Rulon has done so much for Greco-Roman wrestling," Fraser said. "He's our most decorated guy. He's a great ambassador, not only for Greco-Roman, but for all styles of wrestling."
Growing up, Gardner never imagined he would become one of the most recognizable faces for his sport.
"You don't really picture yourself as a celebrity when you're on the wrestling mat sweating on each other," Gardner said. "I didn't think there was any celebrity."
Gardner has remained self-effacing despite the stardom.
"I've just appreciated showing this sport off," he said.
He almost didn't get the chance to compete in these Games. In February 2002 he had a snowmobiling accident and was stranded for 17 hours. He almost died of hypothermia.
A middle toe was amputated, others sustained permanent nerve damage, and he needed four surgeries to repair the damage. This year he recovered from a motorcycle accident only to dislocate a wrist in a pickup basketball game.
His footwork hasn't been the same since the amputation, Gardner admitted. But it forced him to work harder on his positioning and strength.
There was never a doubt about an Olympic run. "In 1996 I made a commitment to go eight years," he said.
Although he didn't win a second gold as intended, there was no shame in a bronze, Gardner said. "For me to come back and win a medal like this, even though it's a bronze -- I have no regrets," he said.
After his final match, he hurried to take off his shoes, out of respect to the wrestlers about to compete in the gold-medal match, he said. Before leaving the mat, he took a brief curtain call and blew kisses to the crowd.
He didn't leave with his greatest victory.
His greatest moment will do.