PECATONICA, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF)–There are Olympic champions and then there are Olympic legends. One Olympic legend who loomed very large in 2000 was here in the Stateline Thursday night.

The kids in the Du-Pec wrestling club held their Thursday evening practice at Pecatonica’s Elementary school us usual, but this was far from a typical club gathering, because there watching them was Rulon Gardner, the 2000 Olympic Heavyweight Champion in Greco-Roman wrestling. Gardner started wrestling in Wyoming when he was the age of some of these kids.

“As a five year old, I remember the first time I walked in and wrestled. I got my butt kicked by my brother who was a year older, but I went in, I had fun and I learned how to wrestle.”

Years later, a grown-up Rulon Gardner made the U.S. Olympic team that went to Sydney Australia. He won his first four matches and then met up with Aleksandr Karelin in the gold medal match. Karelin was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and undefeated in 13 years of wrestling. Gardner beat him and won the gold.

“Here I am against a guy that three years previously broke my neck in two places,” said Gardner, “So when I came out and walked out with him, I realized I had an opportunity.

“Nobody expected me to win the Olympics, probably first-of-all me, but I just said to myself, you’re never going to go out in life and give halfway. You’re going to give 100 percent, and if you win, lose or draw, know that you gave 100 percent.”

Off the mats, Gardner has had brushes with death following a snowmobile accident that left him stranded in bitter cold, a motorcycle accident and a light aircraft accident.

“Life is adversity and challenges,” said Gardner.

He overcame all of that, and because of it,he has a great appreciation for life, a real zest for it.

“Every day I see that sun come up, I have a true gift that God has given me to be on this earth.”

Gardner also has a zest for kids and sharing his wrestling knowledge with them and his life lessons with them.

“You walk out there, and you see kids and you see that light in their eyes, that happiness. That thought of maybe someday I can become an Olympic champion. If I can do it, I believe every one of these kids can do it.”

Gardner will appear at Pecatonica High School Friday evening for a dinner fundraiser. He’ll conduct at wrestling clinic Saturday at Pecatonica High School.