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Although he’s somewhat shy to admit it, a hero was in Billings Friday for the opening ceremonies of the Big Sky State Games.

“I wake up every day and I’m the person I am,” said Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Rulon Gardner, who was the ceremonial torchlighter Friday for the 16th annual Big Sky State Games at Daylis Stadium. “And now everybody says, ‘You’re an inspiration to America,’ but I’m the same person I was.”

The reason the likable Gardner is thought of as a hero is because he has worked hard. His hard work paid off when he won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

In what many consider to be one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time, then 29-year-old Gardner defeated Russia’s Aleksandr “The Great” Karelin 1-0 in the super heavyweight division. Karelin was the three-time defending Olympic gold medalist and had not lost in 13 years. Karelin hadn’t even been scored on since 1993.

The two men are now 1-1 against each other and might not ever face off again as Gardner said Karelin has retired. But true to the character Gardner showed Friday, he still has a tremendous respect for the Russian.

“I think he’s the king, he’s the best,” said Gardner, who is a native of Afton, Wyo. “He’s the man who has been there all those years.”

Gardner said he knew he would probably have to face Karelin at the Olympics so he worked hard to get in shape so he wouldn’t tire out in the match. Gardner said that in 1997 when he lost to Gardner 5-0 he weighed 265 pounds, and he knew he would have to bulk up for the rematch. Gardner said he works out every day but Sunday and he regularly lifts weights and participates in live wrestling in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Altogether he works out about five hours a day.

As a result of his workout schedule, Gardner had put on 20 pounds for the 2000 Olympics.

Gardner said another key to beating a top opponent like Karelin is to not psyche yourself out.

“Everybody was afraid of Karelin,” said Gardner. “They just walked out there and never gave it a chance.”

An important concept for Gardner in life is family. And he credits his family for helping him evolve into a Olympic champion. Gardner said he likes Greco-Roman wrestling for the competition and because the people are nice. Gardner grew up on a dairy farm and was the youngest of nine children. He said while growing up he looked up to real people like his parents – not sports stars. He would encourage other youngsters to do this.

“Use your parents and the people around you,” Gardner said. “They love you and have sacrificed their lives for you.”

Gardner could have retired after the Olympics and become a sports entertainment star. With the fame Gardner has achieved he would have fit in perfectly with the World Wrestling Federation’s Kurt Angle, who won a gold at the 1996 Olympics. But Gardner opted to stay in competitive wrestling.

“They already contacted me. I turned them down,” said Gardner. “They offered me a million a year.”

Some would wonder how a person could possibly turn down a million dollars and all the glitter and fame that comes with it. But for Gardner, his love for the sport of wrestling won out.

“What I do is true wrestling,” he said. ‘I love this sport so much that it’s tough to see it lose its history.”

Currently Gardner is training for the World Championships to be held in New York’s Madison Square Garden in late September. He said in three more years, after the Athens Olympics, he will retire. Then he will probably go into teaching physical education and health and coaching high school wrestling.

In between tournaments, promotion events and working out, Gardner has just started The Miracle on the Mat Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to educate people about healthy lifestyles. Miracle on the Mat also works with people with catastrophic diseases such as cancer.

Gardner has had his share of pain, as he’s know several people with cancer. His brother, Ron, died of cancer when Gardner was 8 years old. And one of Gardner’s current friends has terminal bone cancer.

“The foundation is to provide opportunities for treatment or transportation or housing or food (for the sick),” said Gardner. “Or however we can help.”

Currently Miracle on the Mat Foundation, based in Wyoming, has five people on its board of directors. Gardner said it will try to help everyone it can.

“Whoever (is eligible). It just depends on need,” he said. “We’re going to start off slow and start raising money.”

Based on prior history, the Miracle on the Mat Foundation will probably be a success. Just track Gardner’s career. And call him a hero.

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