By Roger O’Neil Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/25/2004 6:36:37 PM ET 2004-08-25T22:36:37

He's got gold, but prefers the black and white of his cows. Rulon Gardner is the Wyoming farm kid who four years ago in Sydney pulled the upset of the century in Greco-Roman style wrestling. Gardner defeated his Russian opponent (who had never lost an international match) for the gold medal, and carried the American flag at closing ceremonies.

But little did he know his instant celebrity would be followed by a series of mishaps — on the one hand, threatening his life, while on the other, giving perspective on how to live it.

Rulon Gardner may be an imposing figure on the wrestling mat, but off it, he's a klutz. His motorcycle is destroyed after a recent wreck. In fact, since winning the gold medal in Sydney, he's outlived the nine lives of one cat and is now on his second.

Gardner's most serious accident was two years ago. His snowmobile got stuck in a riverbed in snowy Wyoming. It was 25 below and rescuers didn't find him for 18 hours. Gardner's body temperature dipped to 88 degrees, low enough to kill him. But his bulk — and he says his faith — are why only the middle toe of his right foot was amputated.

A frequent motivational speaker to kids now, Gardner often talks about mind and body.

"Never give up and never stop trying. If we don't try, we won't succeed," he says.

Gardner's easy-going demeanor has resulted in a unique union with the man he beat to get on this year's Olympic team. Dremiel Byers is helping Gardner train.

"He's my friend and I want to push him. And bring home a medal for all of us," says Byers.

Gardner flew his family from Wyoming to Athens because this is his last Olympics. That's mom, dad, eight brothers & sisters — 16 people in all.

After the games, the 33-year-old is going home to the farm.

"The world's big, but you know what? This (Afton, Wyoming) is the most important place in the world for me," he says.

It's where family lives — and all those cows — and maybe, another gold medal.

Note: Gardner lost in the semifinals, but won the bronze medal.

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