As wrestlers at Star Valley High, Reynold was the heavyweight state champion in '88, and Rulon won that title in '89. Reynold went on to win two Pac-10 championships at Oregon State, while Rulon won the '91 national junior college title as a heavyweight at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. He then transferred to Nebraska, where he finished fourth in the '93 NCAA championships. About that time someone asked him if he'd like to try Greco-Roman. "What's that?" Rulon asked.
During his early training in Greco-Roman, Gardner saw a poster of a fearsome Russian wrestler named Karelin. "Who's that?" he asked a training partner.
"That's the best wrestler in the world," Gardner was told.
The gardner children all graduated from college, virtually every penny of their tuitions coming from scholarships. Reed may be a farmer, but he has a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in dairy technology, and Virginia got a degree in home economics education at Arizona. They know the value of education as well as they know the value of a good day's work. Geraldine, the oldest child, is a cardiologist. Rollin, who runs the farm now, has a degree in animal science. Evon, who has a degree in business administration, is a corporate trainer for a hotel chain. Russell is a special education teacher, Diane a fourth-grade teacher. Marcella is a nurse. Reynold has a master's in agriculture and teaches that subject in high school. Rulon earned a degree in physical education from Nebraska, and his wife, Stacy, is a high school social studies teacher.
A regiment of Rulon's parents, siblings and in-laws made it to Sydney, 16 strong. It wasn't easy. Almost every one of Afton's 1,200 residents pitched in to help Reed, Virginia and Stacy make the trip. There was a benefit golf tournament, a Rulon Gardner Gas Day, an autograph session and a milk-can dinner, a traditional Wyoming affair during which ham, sausage, corn, carrots, onions and cabbage are mixed with honey and steamed in a 10-gallon milk can. In Sydney the family members stayed at the homes of Australian Mormons and ate most of their meals together, gratis, at the AT&T Family Hospitality Center down on the waterfront. It was like a big family holiday.
That atmosphere evaporated when Rulon stepped onto the mat to face Karelin. Virginia, in particular, was suffering. Rare is the Rulon match during which she doesn't spend half the time in the bathroom because of nerves. (He may be 29 years old and weigh 286 pounds, but he's still her baby.) Rulon joked that the family put her on the inside seat so she couldn't get out, and, indeed, she did see every minute of her son's bouts.
Before the gold medal match NBC commentator Jeff Blatnick, who in 1987 was one of Karelin's first international victims, searched for words to describe the mighty Russian. "You consider this ancient sport and this monumental man who's had a perfect career," said Blatnick, "and the only thing you come up with is that he's what Hercules was to the ancient Greeks."
One of Hercules's biggest battles came against Antaeus, whose mother was Earth and who was a worthy opponent as long as he kept either a hand or a foot on the ground. Hercules finally defeated Antaeus by picking him up and strangling him in midair. The comparison is irresistible. Gardner, child of the earth, was trying to avoid being hoisted into the air by this Hercules. Gardner picked up the lone point of the match, only the second Karelin had yielded in two years, when Karelin released his grip during the clinch that began Round 2, and thereafter Gardner repelled every offensive. How strong-minded did Gardner have to be to fight off that strength, that willpower, that oppressive weight of precedent? Though his body isn't devoid of loose skin (as Karelin's appears to be), Gardner's greatest strengths are his conditioning and his will. "Nobody wants to wrestle Rulon in practice," says U.S. coach Steve Fraser, "because he never lets up."
Reynold gave an explanation the day after Rulon's monumental victory: "It's the law of the harvest. You plant the seed, you water the seed, you fertilize the seed and you weed the seed. If you do those things, and only if you do them, you will harvest."
Reynold stared at his brother, who was signing autographs and letting tourists fondle his gold medal. "Only a few people know how hard Rulon worked and where he came from," said Reynold. "Rulon knows the law of the harvest."