Fueling the flame
Each of the 11,500 Olympic torchbearers has a story to tell.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a 12-year-old author, and a grandmother from San Diego may not seem to have much in common. But organizers of this year's Olympic Torch Relay decided each one of them is "an inspiration to others."
This was the primary qualification for the 11,500 individuals chosen to carry the Olympic torch from Atlanta, site of the 1996 summer Games, to the final destination, the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8.
The call for 50- to 100-word nominations went out last spring, and about 210,000 glowing essays were submitted by friends, colleagues, and family members of potential flame carriers.
Most of the torchbearers are not celebrities. They are ordinary folks, some of whom have overcome severe hardships to lead happy, productive lives. Others are big-hearted types who have deeply touched their families and communities with their kind deeds.
"At some point you had to quit crying," says Susan Bandy, who headed up one of the 96 task forces that reviewed nomination letters. "It's incredible dealing with all the stories."
And also incredible for those chosen.
Bev Bourne is still pinching herself. When the Nebraska resident received an e-mail notifying her that she'd been chosen, she almost deleted it. "I thought it was spam," she recalls.
Fortunately, Mrs. Bourne gave it another look, and then shrieked for joy when she realized it was for real.
The Olympic flame was lit on Nov. 19 in a ceremony at the site of the ancient Olympic stadium in Olympia, Greece. From there, it traveled to Athens, then by airplane, in a special container, to Atlanta.
Relay runners like Mrs. Bourne aren't the only ones helping to transport the torch across 46 states to Salt Lake City. Car, airplane, train, ship, dogsled, horse-drawn sleigh, snowmobile, prairie schooner, ice skaters, and a skier have also been assisting in the 65-day, 13,500-mile journey.
The torch pauses for two city celebrations each day. The flame is kept in a lantern traveling with the relay, which is closely guarded to ensure the flame won't be extinguished. A torch is lighted from the flame each morning to start that day's relay.
During the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, a sacred flame burned at the altar of Zeus, in whose honor the games were held. Its lighting signaled the opening of the games, and its extinguishing signaled the end.
The Olympic flame first became a tradition of the modern Olympics at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, when it was lighted and remained at Olympic Stadium throughout the event.
Eight years later, Carl Diem of Germany, inspired by ancient Greek drawings, created the first Olympic Torch Relay. The flame traveled from Olympia to Berlin as part of the 1936 Olympic ceremony.
A torch relay has been held, in one form or another, at every Olympics since. The original purpose was not only to alert athletes to the start of the games, but also to bring a halt to war. "At the ancient games," explains Lindsay Rowles, spokesperson for the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay, "runners carried the flame through the towns as a declaration of truce. So it is a symbol of peace and unity."
Alice Kenniston, San Diego
Alice Kenniston could hardly contain her excitement. "Me, an Olympic torchbearer?" the 80-something grandmother gasps, still tickled by the news she got last summer. "I can't do that, but I sure am curious!"
Clearly someone thought she was up to the honor. The identify of the person who nominated Mrs. Kenniston remains a mystery, she says. "I've asked everyone in the family. I will solve this if I have to tie all my relatives down and not let them go." Then, her voice grows hushed, and the woman described by her secret admirer as a "4-foot-11 bundle of energy" whispers into the phone: "Oh, golly, do you know who it is?"
I am familiar only with her admirer's endorsement, not his or her name, and I am glad not to spoil any family secrets.
The oldest of eight children raised by an Arizona gold miner, Mrs. Kenniston, who now lives in San Diego, worked in sweatshops during the Depression, made parachutes for the military during World War II, took in eight foster children ("before it was considered PC"), and "buried a son and husband with grace and dignity."
She may not be much of an athlete, but according to the letter writer, this Kenniston family matriarch can "run circles around anyone twice her size and with a heart four times more full of love!"
Richard Cortez, Boise, Idaho
The son of Mexican migrant workers, Richard Cortez grew up picking apricots in Guadalajara. Now, as the owner of a successful metal-crafting business with 90 employees reporting to him, he helps other Hispanics get off the farm and into the business world.
His entire staff, 55 percent of whom are Hispanic, will cheer on Mr. Cortez when he carries the Olympic torch on the streets of Boise later this month. His three sons and seven grandchildren will also join his cheering squad.
Ten years ago, Cortez founded the Hispanic Business Association, which helps children from rural areas stay off the streets and in school, and awards them college scholarships.
"I tell them that they have to get off the farm and mingle in their communities, or they won't get anywhere," he says.
Cortez was fortunate that his parents insisted that he get an education, which opened doors far beyond the apricot orchards. "I worked for 24 years at Hewlett Packard," he says. "That's where I learned all about the business world."
He may have retired from Hewlett Packard, but he has no plans to retire for good. "That's no fun," he says. "I want to keep helping young people to get ahead, to show them that if you work at things, you can achieve a lot."
As an Olympic torchbearer, Cortez says, he has the opportunity to demonstrate the rewards of hard work. "I can say to them, 'Hey, look at me! Hard work really does pay off! You could do this, too!' "
Eric Maleson, Norwell, Mass.
Eight years ago, Eric Maleson hardly knew what a bobsled was. But the highly ambitious Brazilian, with a lifelong dream to compete in the Olympic Games, has always loved racing cars. He wanted to try a winter sport, preferably one in which he could qualify for the Olympics, and he decided bobsledding was the closest to car racing he could get.
"Brazilians love speed," says his American fiancée, Lisa Papandrea. "He calls bobsledding 'Formula 1 on ice.' "
Mr. Maleson and Ms. Papandrea closed the food business they had started together, took less demanding jobs, and threw themselves into realizing Maleson's dream.
He took bobsledding lessons in Lake Placid, N.Y.; they founded a Brazilian bobsledding federation, of which she is now the director; and his team eventually qualified to compete in Salt Lake City as the first Brazilian bobsledders in the Olympics.
To his surprise, Maleson was told by the Brazilian Olympic Committee that he is also the first Brazilian ever to carry the torch.
"Our phone is ringing off the hook with calls from Brazilian reporters," he says. "We hope my participation will bring interest there. We want to develop junior teams and women's teams."
At first, Papandrea wasn't quite sure what to make of Maleson's lofty ambitions.
"He had no idea how to deal with ice when he first came to the States. He totaled his car when driving on it," she says. "I thought he was crazy, but nice."
Now she calls him "the best thing that ever happened to me. He has taught me the power of believing in yourself, the importance of going for your dreams, setting goals, being tenacious, never giving up...."
It's no mystery who nominated Maleson. "Being the motormouth that I am," Papandrea says, "it was hard to keep my letter to the 100-word limit."
But Maleson's biggest fan still hasn't watched him race. "We go 90 miles an hour on ice," he says. "It can be dangerous. She refuses to even look when I go down."
Papandrea concurs. "It's too much for me. I just cover my eyes and pray."
The couple plans to be married on Feb. 25, the last day of the Games, at the top of the bobsledding track. She vows to keep her eyes open for that event.
Amy Barrett and Jason Meserve,
These newlyweds weren't the least bit tempted to leave town for the holidays. They had an important date that not even the most exotic vacation could compete with. On Dec. 28 at 7:02 a.m., Amy Barrett passed the Olympic torch in Boston to her husband of five months, Jason Meserve.
Amy, a special-education teacher at a preschool outside Boston, was nominated first by Jason, and then a colleague later nominated Jason, a computer-magazine journalist. She got the news that they had been chosen last July.
"Oh yeah, I put you up for that," Jason casually told Amy as she read the announcement in total disbelief.
"It's wonderful to see the joy Amy and the children bring to each other as they work toward even the simplest goals," Jason says, "like remembering their phone numbers, correctly pronouncing names, or even sucking through a straw. Amy makes it easy and fun for them to learn."
Clearly, Amy gets just as much back from her students as she gives. "It's the simple things that make my day," she beams.
Bev Bourne, Omaha, Neb.
Bev Bourne has always been fascinated by the Olympics. "I am glued to the TV when the Games are on," she says.
But her interest has taken her far from her own living room. She once traveled to Greece to see the site of the first games. "What a thrill that was," she recalls. "It was ancient history, but you could feel the spirit like it was yesterday."
Her daughter, one of seven children, has married a Greek police officer, and Mrs. Bourne often visits them and their three children at their home in Greece.
When she heard that the Olympic committee was looking for torchbearers, she alerted her family. "If you can think of anything good I've ever done, anything at all, please write it down and send it off," she pleaded. "Most of them thought I was joking." But her niece knew better.
"After my mom passed away when I was 9," she wrote, "Bev provided family lore and mother-like support. What strikes me is her willingness to grow, change, and improve. Her intelligence, vocabulary, and passion for reading inspired me to complete my Ph.D. All of her children have succeeded in their fields. One was even elected state senator."
Mrs. Bourne is indeed proud of her high-achieving brood, especially since she didn't attend college. Her mother, a registered nurse, didn't encourage her to take this step, but she has always strived to make up for it by reading. "I read constantly," she says.
But, of course, every four years, she puts down her book to watch her favorite TV show.
Ted Kellar, Pittsfield, Mass.
Ted Kellar has played ice hockey since he was in kindergarten. Now he's a referee for youth leagues and college teams near his home in the Berkshires. He occasionally has to deal with unruly parents, but "that's the exception," he says with a sense of relief.
Both of his children, an 11-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy, also play. "Ice hockey is a game you can enjoy for life," he says. "It's fun, it helps you make friends, and it teaches important lessons like teamwork and sportsmanship."
When he's not wearing skates, he's often in tattered work boots at the site of a Habitat for Humanity project. Ten years ago, Mr. Kellar founded a local affiliate of the organization, and he's been actively involved in building homes for low-income families ever since.
"This work allows me to combine my talents and interests while helping to improve someone else's life," says Kellar.
He often takes his wife and children along with him, eliminating any tension between family time and building projects. "My wife and I help make meals for the crews, and the children serve. It's good for the kids to see that life's not just about them, but that there are people who need their help."
Kellar has no idea who nominated him to carry the Olympic torch. "No one has come forward," he says. "I saw the ads on TV and thought about nominating various people. I was stunned."
Karl Hetzler, Fall River, Mass.
Karl Hetzler is well known in his hometown of Fall River, Mass. As chairman of the Chamber of Commerce board, a former member of the high school advisory board, a mayoral appointee to the office of economic development, and owner of a bustling downtown business, H&S Tool & Engineering, he's clearly a take-charge kind of guy.
So when the city's mayor heard the Olympic committee was looking for inspiring people to transport the torch, Mr. Hetzler flashed to mind.
Not only did the mayor of Fall River nominate Hetzler, but Hetzler's sister Heidi did as well. "She knows how we were raised in a tough section of town, and that I managed to stay out of trouble, focus on my education, and make something of my life," he says. "Now that I've been successful, it's my turn to give something back to my community."
He has little tolerance for those who don't get involved. "They'd better not complain. One's community is an extension of one's backyard," Hetzler insists. "It doesn't end where one's property meets the street. All residents, not just elected officials, have a responsibility to contribute."
He speaks glowingly about the rewards of volunteer work: "You can't imagine how good it feels to see something come to life until you've been a part of it. It could be as simple as building a playground or coaching a Little League team. The joy this activity brings shows firsthand that it's better to give than receive."
Prior to the big event, all torchbearers were asked to choose their pace for their segment of the relay. "I went with a slow jog," Hetzler says. "I wanted to enjoy every moment of it."
Sondra and Silvana Clark,
Olympic torchbearers must have turned 12 years old by Dec. 1. With her 12th birthday on Nov. 22, Sondra Clark barely made the deadline. The youngest person chosen, Sondra will carry the torch in Seattle later this month.
In some ways, Sondra's life is like that of any other fifth-grader. She goes to school each day, plays soccer, and enjoys craftmaking. But her work as the American spokeschild for Childcare International exposes her to a world far from her peers at Silver Beach Elementary School.
A year ago, she traveled to Africa, where she met with many of the children for whom she works to recruit sponsors. She sang and danced with children in Kenya and Uganda, taught them how to use scissors and make crafts, and met her own "sponsor child."
She has since appeared on national television to tell about this experience, written two books, clinched a contract for two more, and agreed to tour the US for a year speaking in churches about the importance of helping the world's impoverished children.
"I like to touch lives," says Sondra. "In Africa, I saw the difference just one person can make. If I can get even one child sponsored, I can help them live better ... you know, no more dirt floor, a tin roof, food on the table ... it can save a life."
When Sondra's mother, Silvana, dashed off the nomination letter for her daughter, she didn't expect to be nominated as well. But the Olympic committee decided that behind every daughter as remarkable as Sondra must be an exceptionally supportive mother. So the Clarks are one of 480 "inspirational teams" chosen to carry the torch.
To practice for the big event, the mother-daughter team heads to the nearby high school, where they run around the track. Or they might jog to a nearby pond with hot-dog buns in hand for the ducks - but also for rehearsing the torch hand-off. "People look at us strangely when we do this," says Sondra.
No doubt, mom's work as a motivational speaker has rubbed off on her daughter. "She was 4 when she started traveling with me for various speaking engagements," Silvana says. "Since then, she's done several TV commercials, been on the 'Donny & Marie Show,' the Discovery Channel.... Each time she's picked up in a limo, but she comes home and I hand her the vacuum. She's definitely not a prima donna."
Jordan Grine, Columbus, Ohio
One of the additional runners selected after Sept. 11 was 12-year-old Jordan Grine, who carried the torch on Jan. 2 in Columbus, Ohio. He represented his 10-year-old brother, Luke, who was too young to join the relay.
Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, Luke saw a news story on TV telling how the firefighters searching through the debris in New York City sometimes had bleeding hands because they didn't have enough gloves. He told his mother he wanted to get gloves to send them.
The next day when he came home from school, he found that his mother had made up fliers asking people to donate gloves. On Friday he distributed them. .
Then, he and Jordan took a wagon and collected gloves - more than 400 pairs. The local Cub Scouts joined in and soon collected another 800 pairs. Luke and his father flew to New York to deliver them to several fire stations.
Luke was disappointed that he couldn't run in the relay himself, but excited for his brother. Jordan's entire sixth-grade class - along with his family and many of his friends - came out to cheer him on.
"It was pretty amazing," he said of the run. "It was really cold, but the sidewalks were full of people all the way along, and they were all cheering."
Jordan's gymnastics club provided the funds so that he could purchase the torch he carried. (All torchbearers were given the opportunity to buy - for $335 - the torches they carried.) He's not sure where he'll keep his torch yet. "I thought about keeping it in my room, but maybe it should go in the living room," he says.
It's a memory he wants to share with everyone.
Sharon Huntington contributed to this article.
The Olympic torch is visiting 46 states, 125 major cities, and covering 13,500 miles over 65 days.
Some other interesting torch information:
The Olympic torch travels an average of 208 miles per 12-hour day.
Torchbearers are accompanied by one of about 4,300 support runners - each of whom will run about three times as far as each torchbearer.
White uniforms are for torchbearers; blue uniforms are for their escorts.
Anyone who carries a torch can buy it for $335.
Each torchbearer travels 0.2 miles and was given the choice to walk, jog, or run.
The Olympic flame is ignited by the sun's rays in Olympia, Greece, and is kept in a lantern that travels with the relay.
People aren't the only ones to transport the torch. En route to Salt Lake City, it is also being carried by car, plane, train, boat, dog-sled, skier, horse-drawn sleigh, snowmobile, ice skaters, and covered wagon.
The nationwide selection process to choose 11,500 torchbearers was led by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
All nomination forms for the relay event were completed online between March 1 and May 15, 2001. Ninety-six task forces reviewed a total of 210,000 short essays.
The 2002 relay is actually scaled down compared to some previous productions. For the 2000 Sydney, Australia, Olympics, the torch traveled farther (37,500 miles), longer (120 days), and through more countries (14) than any preceding relay.
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had the most torchbearers: 101,839.
The torch relay is sponsored by Chevrolet and Coca-Cola.
For more information, visit the official website for this year's Olympic Games, www. saltlake2002.com.