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Rulon's Big Adventure, Part Deux: Rollin' with Rulon through the Big Apple



You know you have reached the big time when the Pakastani-American New York city street vendor selling gyros knows your name. And, somewhere near SoHo, just northeast of that famed American icon the Statue of Liberty, you are recognized by the man selling 'hot' mechanic's tools while standing next to garbage amidst throngs of people passing by. Rulon Gardner has become more than a wrestler or Olympic champion during the past fortnight, sojourning from the streets of Sydney, to Los Angeles' star-studded city, to the equally as impressive streets of the Big Apple where celebrities circulate in their ordinary work environs. Rulon is on a roll as the XXXL Tour of America wrapped up its first New York leg, October 10, with an appearance on the Rosie O'Donnell Show Tuesday. Just last month the mild-mannered super heavyweight was practicing his art on the mats of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. No one knew him outside the wrestling community. Now he's a pop icon. As one man in New York said, while racing up to him: ''Dude, you're an American hero.'' It's been a weird metamorphosis for the a Greco-Roman wrestler who grew up on a dairy farm in rural Wyoming and had never been to New York until last week. In only his wildest dreams had he thought about being on the Tonight Show or David Letterman. But, after nine minutes, a cartwheel, and a nicely positioned feature on prime-time national TV, he's become everyone's favorite American. Celebrities, politicians, stagehands, professional business people, limo drivers, talk show producers (all people not easily star-struck mind you) are caught gazing at the feat of Gardner. The assistant producer of the Tonight Show called him 'the best guest ever.' And the producer of the Rosie O'Donnell Show asked for his autograph, something he said he rarely does. A member of the music group the Back Street Boys even went out of his way as a well wisher. So have other guests at the shows he's appeared on. ''I still haven't woke up yet,'' Gardner said Tuesday. ''In some ways, my mind hasn't caught up to my body. I'm still in Sydney 10 days ago. This is all so wild. I know this is my 15 minutes of fame, so I'm having fun.'' His fun started with an appearance on the set of the Tonight Show, Oct. 4, where Jay Leno's producers had stored up a surprise. When they went live to Afton, Wyoming, 5,000 people greeted him, along the governor of Wyoming and family members via satellite. It was moment so touching, the nation cried along with Gardner. Hours later, he was on a plane bound overnight for New York City. Sleep deprived, he hammered through a photo shoot with famed photographer Annie Liebowitz for Vanity Fair magazine. One of the sessions was with Today Show host Katie Couric. Immediately following the visit to the famed photo studio, he was whisked away to the Late Show set, where he would read the Top 10 List for David Letterman. A bit stoic, he plowed through '10 Cool Things You Can Do With a Gold Medal.' The list was highlighted by a line that included calling bronze medal winners 'losers.' It received the loudest laugh. Later Gardner said: ''I'm sure that didn't sit well with some of the other Olympians. But, hey, I didn't write the stuff.'' The following day after an early-morning wake-up call, Gardner was on the set of Good Morning America. After an interview overlooking Times Square, he was taken to Riverside Park on the Westside of Manhattan. There, he was honorary judge of a street luge race between Diane Sawyer and one of her colleagues of GMA. After a crash in which Sawyer took out a spectator, Gardner was there to welcome the two finishers and present them mock gold and silver medals. He had fun by telling Sawyer: 'I give you this medal after years of training and inability to drive. And also for all that you've done for the sport.'' Later that afternoon, he was sitting on the Conan O'Brien set talking about what it was like to beat Karelin. O'Brien had a good time with Gardner playing Karelin up as 'the most scary guy in the world.' Another guest, Kate Hudson, of recent fame as co-star in the movie Almost Famous, is in awe of Gardner and asks how he could face such a terrible man. He responds by telling her when you're in a good fight, you don't think of anything more than getting hurt badly. The mad-capped day ended with a limo ride under the Hudson River to the Meadowlands, where Gardner was a guest of the New Jersey Devils. In the player's team dining area, he would pose with several players and the Stanley Cup, which was on display in the player's lounge. Over the hump, on the backside of being baked, Rulon went home and returned emails until 6 a.m. ''With all the time zone changes,' I couldn't sleep,'' he said. He would sleep until noon. Within six hours, he would be at the Yankees game with swimmer Lenny Krazelberg to shoot out the first pitch for Game 4 of the Yankees and Athletics series. ''What I found surprising was that the players were coming up to me and addressing me by first my first name. Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Chuck Knobloch, all these guys wanting a photo or just to talk,'' he said. Rulon on a Roll. After a Sunday night photo shoot, a free dinner compliments of the Conan O'Brien producers, and a Monday full of interviews at CNN, he was at the Rosie O'Donnell set for one more talk show on the final day of the whirlwind tour. At the Rosie O'Donnell Show, he was provided a Sea-Doo WaveRunner from Rosie O'Donnell. Producers had heard he likes to get away on the Lakes of Wyoming and Utah. Rosie, known for giving presents to guests, surprised him with the gift. 'The best thing may be meeting all these people,' said Gardner. 'Everyone's been so nice.' And Gardner has been so nice back. His hard-working, all-American story is universal. Only the foreign taxi drivers or foreign businessmen seemed unconnected to him in New York and Los Angeles. ''I didn't watch much of the Olympics,'' said Max Weinberg, band leader on Conan O'Brien's show and a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, ''but when I got word of Rulon's story, I was at the TV set. It was the best thing about the Olympics.'' ''My oldest son didn't care much for the Olympics,'' Rosie told Rulon. ''But when you and wrestling came on, he paid attention.'' ''You're what it's all about,'' said one stagehand on the set of the Letterman Show. ''You're the living American dream.'' The producer of the Rosie O'Donnell Show said what piqued his interest more than the average Olympic gold-medal story was the originality and down-to-earth nature he found from Gardner. ''You came across so genuine on Jay Leno,'' he said. It was Gardner's first talk show interview. People in his camp were wondering if his stamina and ability to tell
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