Publish date:

Making Hay Farm life and a local track star helped shape the state's Olympic wrestling champion

Years before I competed in the 2000 Olympics, farm life in Wyoming
taught me how to handle high-stakes competition. I grew up on a
160-acre dairy and beef ranch in Afton (pop. 1,500), the youngest
of nine children. My brother Reynold, older, wiser and more
cunning by one year, would often challenge me to wrestling
matches, usually after I'd just eaten a big meal or finished some
heavy lifting that left my arms sore. The winner got to do the
less taxing chores. ¶ If I won, I'd only have to milk the 50
cows, which meant hooking them up to the machines, walking away
to listen to the radio and coming back 10 minutes later to
collect the milk. If I lost, I'd have to spend hours cleaning
manure from the stalls or carrying 100-pound hay bales into the
barn. Our battles were fierce. We played a game called barn
scoop, in which one of us would use a plastic milk bottle with
the bottom cut off to scoop hay at one end of the barn
and--with the other player trying to tackle him--carry the hay
to a barrel at the opposite end. Whoever got the most hay in
his barrel won. We also played kickball in the basement,
H-O-R-S-E in the backyard and, in the living room, takedown, a
variation on wrestling that over the years destroyed a
chandelier, a rocking chair and some hanging lights.

For four generations my family has farmed in Afton, which sits in
the Star Valley, south of the Grand Teton range. The town is too
small to have a stoplight but boasts the largest
interlocking-elk-horn arch in the world. (It's 75 feet long and
spans four lanes of traffic on Washington Street.) Afton is so
rural that when I was growing up, a few kids rode horses to

Without athletics I'm not sure I would have left the farm much.
Thanks to our church sports program, I grew up playing basketball
and softball. At Star Valley High, I enjoyed football, wrestling
and track. Because there were so few schools around (Wyoming's
population is less than 500,000, the smallest of any state), our
teams often traveled to Idaho and Utah for games. The first time
I went to Idaho Falls, it seemed like another world. It had a
mall and--even more amazing--an FM radio station. I'd grown up
having to listen to whatever out-of-town AM station I could find.

As a junior at Star Valley, in 1988, I finally beat Reynold in
wrestling--we were the team's top heavyweights--but I developed a
staph infection and sat on the sidelines as he won the state
championship. I won that title the next year. Throughout my
career I often wrestled competitors nobody thought I could beat,
like Russia's Alexander Karelin, the three-time gold medalist
whom I defeated in the Olympic Greco-Roman heavyweight final. To
me, they were all like the big brother I had to overcome.

I was inspired in sports by a local track and field star, Dave
Draney, who was six years older than I. Dave, who became a top
decathlete at BYU, was totally dedicated to his training. He
never missed a day in the gym, drank pop or ate candy. In 1988,
when I was 17, Dave told me that I had the ability to do
something special in wrestling. Neither of us talked about
winning the Olympics, but hearing that from Dave left a deep
impression on me. In May, Dave lost a long battle with cancer,
and his death made me realize that I owe a lot of my success to
Wyomingites like him. Dave and others in the Valley helped raise
money to send my family to the Sydney Olympics by holding
everything from a golf tournament to a milk-can dinner, at which
people paid $5 each to eat sausage, ham, corn, onions and
potatoes all cooked together in huge milk cans.

Lately I've been living and training in Colorado Springs, but
after I retire from competition, I plan to settle in Afton. I'd
like to build a rec center in the Valley, especially for older
citizens. They've supported me throughout a career that has taken
me far from Afton, and they've taught me about values and
determination. I like to think that wherever I go, I take their
lessons--and a little of Wyoming--with me.

Rulon Gardner, the 2000 heavyweight gold medalist in Greco-Roman
wrestling, is training for the 2004 Olympics.