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Gardner is still having fun

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — David beats Goliath. Farm boy slays King Kong. Teddy bear defeats Siberian Bear.

The descriptions of Rulon Gardner's stunning Olympic championship in the heavyweight division of Greco-Roman wrestling were as colorful as the Afton, Wyo., native's background.

He's the son of a dairy farmer who built up his strength throwing hay bales while enduring childhood insults about his weight.

Thursday was the anniversary of the Miracle on the Mat, when Gardner stopped Russian Alexander Karelin 1-0 at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Karelin, considered a lock for a gold medal, had not lost an international match in 13 years.

"Oh my gosh it's been a year since then," Gardner said from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., Tuesday. "It doesn't seem like it's been that long."

A year can fly by quickly when you're America's newest, huggable hero with a 54-inch chest. One minute you're holding up "Today" show host Katie Couric for a photo in Vanity Fair, the next you're doing cartwheels on the "Tonight Show."

He also made appearances with Letterman, Oprah, Rosie, Conan and "Nash Bridges."

He earned $125,000 on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," half of which he kept and the other half which went to his new charity to help people with little-known catastrophic illnesses.

In the year since his gold-medal win, Gardner has made about 100 speaking appearances, from inspirational speeches in Forbes 500 corporate board rooms, to chats with school kids on the dangers of drugs, to boosting the morale of American troops in the Middle East.

The Wyoming Legislature gave him a standing ovation after he gave a speech and arm-wrestled a state representative. (Gardner won.)

Through it all, he seems unaffected by fortune and fame.

After turning 30 last month, how he celebrated by riding his Harley-Davidson.

His message remains the same: Work hard, believe in yourself and have fun.

"I try to just enjoy my life and my goal long-term is being able to move back to (Wyoming's) Star Valley," he said.

He lives in Colorado Springs to take advantage of Olympic training facilities, but his heart and mind are never far from the sleepy, western Wyoming valley.

"That's the state I grew up in and that's the state I call home and I love Wyoming with a passion and every day I yearn to be with my family and my friends and my loved ones."

Another goal is helping people through his foundation, Miracle on the Mat. When he was 8, his older brother, Ronald, died at age 13 from a rare bone disorder. A close friend from Star Valley, Dave Draney, a former standout trackster at BYU, suffers from a rare bone cancer.

"This is a person who was never sick a day in his life," Gardner said, "and all of a sudden one day he's sick."

Gardner donated the first chunk of funding for the foundation, which seeks to provide transportation and treatment for those stricken with rare and often terminal illnesses.

In the meantime, he trains.

"I made a decision in the past year — wrestling is what I do and I do it for the love of the sport," he said. "I don't do it for the fame or that kind of stuff. I just do it for the competition."

He was scheduled to compete in the world wrestling championships this week in New York, but the terrorist attacks forced an indefinite postponement.

Gardner seethes over the suspected hijackers living in the United States and enjoying American freedoms while plotting the suicide attacks.

"If they have a problem living, why not take themselves out of this world and not everybody else?" he said. "Some people just don't care about the common good and common decency of people."

The highlight of Gardner's year was a morale-building trip to the Persian Gulf after the USS Cole was struck by a suicide bomber. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 39 were injured.

"The people that tear our country down and live in our country and don't respect it ... these people need to go over there and see what these people are doing for our country," he said. "To see the pride and love for our country these people have is just incredible."

He said he told the troops, "You guys are making America the power that we are; you give us the opportunity to go out and enjoy our freedoms, it all starts with you guys.

"If we don't have you, we don't have nothing."