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Hometown hero a big hit on small screen

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"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno applauds after introducing Olympic gold medal wrestler Rulon Gardner of Afton, Wyo.

“Tonight Show” host Jay Leno applauds after introducing Olympic gold medal wrestler Rulon Gardner of Afton, Wyo.


AFTON, Wyo. — The town, and then some, turned out Wednesday to cheer and surprise Olympic gold medalist and hometown hero Rulon Gardner.

An estimated 2,400 people packed the Star Valley High School gym as Gardner appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

The turnout was about 900 more people than live here, thanks to word of mouth and mention on the radio.

The images were brought to Gardner live and they brought tears to his eyes. As he spoke what appeared to be words of gratitude, the noise of the crowd and time delay from the satellite transmission made his words imperceptible.

Leno handed him tissues as he struggled intermittently to hold back tears.

His longtime high school wrestling coach was there. So were family members — his parents, two of his brothers and two of his sisters. Gov. Jim Geringer brought sister Marcella and her family from Laramie on his plane.

Before seeing the Afton crowd, Gardner walked onto the "Tonight Show" stage and did a cartwheel, similar to his act of exuberance seen by millions after his improbable win over Russian Alexander Karelin for the Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Gardner brought the medal to the show, and pulled it out of his pocket to cheers.

Thousands of miles away, the noise in the Afton gym at times was almost deafening. It was difficult to make out the interview because of frequent, sustained applause and hollers.

Gardner told Leno his wrestling career started early in his childhood with his brothers "kind of having to fight and wrestle for our food."

When asked if the gold seemed within his reach when the Olympics began, Gardner responded, "Not even close."

Gardner attributed his work ethic to his upbringing on his family's dairy farm about a mile south of Afton.

The audience in Afton was a sea of gray T-shirts bearing Gardner's image and the words "Miracle on the Mat."

"Someone coming from humble beginnings and making it, that's the American Dream," Geringer said beforehand. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to small-town America."

Chad Spracklen, a 12-year-old Gardner fan put it this way: "We're not a hick town anymore."