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Shelley Osterloh reporting The sight of big Rulon Gardner, pulling at his shoestrings in the middle of a wrestling mat in Athens, surely tugged at the heartstrings of fans around the world who followed his improbable journey.
A journey that took him from milking cows on a Wyoming Dairy Farm, to staging the most stunning upset in Olympic wrestling history in Sydney, to losing his chance at another gold today. Only to stand and fight one more time.
Rulon Gardner will bring home a Bronze Medal, from the 2004 Olympic Games. But, he'll leave behind his shoes, and maybe a little of his heart.
He says, considering all he's been through the last few years, he was happy just to be back competing in the Olympics, and that he is very proud to have won bronze.
But perhaps the most touching moment came at the end, when Rulon ceremoniously left his shoes, as a sign it was his last match.
It was an emotional day of highs and lows. In the semifinals, Rulon Gardner tried to attack, and let his guard down for one second. His opponent from Kazakstan was able to score, knocking him out of the gold medal round, and into a race for bronze.
Rulon Gardner, Olympic Bronze Medalist: "Darn it he got me, so you know, I got to come back, and I have no regrets. I gave it 100%, and that's all I can ask of myself."
In the medal match, Gardner went against Iran's Sajad Barzi for a 3-0 victory, winning the bronze medal. Moments later, Gardner sat down on the mat, took off his shoes, and left them: A sign that this is his last match.
Then as his family and friends cheered, and opponents respectfully applauded, Rulon Gardner carried the flag with tears on his cheeks.
Rulon Gardner, Olympic Bronze Medalist: "That's everything that a wrestler could ever give, is 100% walking off the mat, knowing that they are leaving their shoes, hopefully, for someone else to filled, hopefully, some other generation to take, and become a champion just like, hopefully, we are going to become in America."
Lisa Gardner, Rulons' Wife: "He’s a great wrestler, I mean, a wonderful athlete. How many people make it to the Olympics? For him to be here twice is certainly a blessing."
Diane Gardner, Rulon's Sister: "It was awesome. But the toughest thing to see was to see him leave his shoes on the mat. It was very emotional for the whole family. We just broke down and cried right there."
Rulon Gardner, Olympic Bronze Medalist: "Honor, representation of ones country and dignity, and athletic endeavors, that the Olympic experience. That’s what makes these games so beautiful."