Western will

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The biggest American hero of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney will be forgotten by most people by the time this newspaper is tossed away.

But before the memory fades, we wanted to take time to pay tribute to him and the western will that carried him to an improbable victory.

The hero grew up north of here in a small Wyoming town called Afton. It sits in a valley

surrounded by the gorgeous Rockies. Agriculture is still king in Afton. It's kind of like Steamboat Springs 50 years ago.

The hero is a throwback himself; a reminder of a simpler, quieter time; a time when American relay team members didn't strut around grotesquely after winning gold medals in a foreign land; a time when champions humbly accepted their prizes before stepping out of the spotlight.

To be sure, our hero wasn't always a hero.

Long before he did the impossible, he was just an overweight farm kid who was teased because of his weight. Little did those young hecklers know, most of that weight was the hero's heart.

One day, our hero found wrestling, and he decided that he liked wrestling and before long, he realized he was pretty good at it. That's when the dream of great things started to take shape. And it wouldn't die, not with that huge heart keeping it alive.

So our hero worked hard and eventually they stopped calling him overweight, and started calling him a heavyweight, and then a superheavyweight.

That's what he is now, a superheavyweight. But more than that, he is the reining Olympic champion in superheavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling. He earned that title by beating the terrifying Russian, Alexander Karelin, 1-0, in Sydney. In the three previous Olympics, it was Karelin who had stood on the top pedestal and accepted the gold. More impressive than that, Karelin hadn't been scored on in 10 years and he had never lost in international competition.

But the great Russian met his match in 29-year-old Rulon Gardner of Afton, Wyo. The Red Scare couldn't withstand the Western Will.

Perhaps it's overly dramatic to use Rulon Gardner as an example of why, deep down, we always knew during those long years of the Cold War that the American spirit would eventually triumph over the Evil Empire.

Then again, maybe it's not.

But it certainly isn't too much to hold Rulon Gardner up as an example of what happens when you follow your heart or are driven by it.

We can still see Rulon Gardner in his moment of glory. He is standing on the highest of three pedestals and a gold medal hangs around his neck. His eyes are raised to an unseen American flag. The National Anthem plays, he quietly sings along, and we are humbled by our hero.

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