Vancouver Journal #6: Passing the Torch

Vancouver Journal #6: Passing the Torch

Thursday, February 11, 2010

 It was drizzling and chilly and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do it. But I had agreed to do it so there I was in sketchy neighborhood of Detroit at 8pm on a Friday night. Then they told me, “the torch is a couple of hours late, can you wait?”

 The Olympic torch has been crossing Canada for more than 100 days now, passing in and out of 90% or more of the communities of this huge country along the way. A few days ago, on day 102 it made its way to the west coast, 60 miles north of Vancouver into a community of a few hundred called Mission.

Yesterday in a kickoff meeting for the NBC crew, John Furlong, the architect of this games’ proposal spoke in clear, simple and inspiring terms about the journey of the Olympics to Vancouver, and of the torch itself. “Amazingly,” he said, with a mist of tears forming in his eyes, “at 6am on a weekday, there were more than 10,000 people lining that road for the one single minute it took for the runner to pass through that tiny community.”

Back in the mid-90’s, as a part of the Atlanta summer games, the Olympic torch passed through Detroit. I guess Detroit was short on Olympians at the time because they not only asked me to take a leg of the torch run (and who is “they?” I still don’t know) but they asked me to anchor the main leg into the city on a Friday night.

I remember thinking, “Friday? Really? I guess so...”

I’m sad for my former self. I didn’t realize the import of the moment, the sacrifice and time of the volunteers, or the deeper meaning of the run of the torch across the country and into the Olympic stadium that characterizes each Olympic games. No, I was too busy with my stuff. Did I thank the dozens of volunteers that checked me in, gave me a gift bag, helped me select a t-shirt? Maybe. Maybe, I thanked one or two people and ignored the organizing effort that had delivered this odd and miraculous moment.

After the torch left the tiny community north of Vancouver, it started brushing the outskirts of this large city, and the next town it entered had 50,000 people lining the streets – all to see a butane-lit fire pass through its city limits. The next town had 100,000 people. In just a few days, a billion people will witness its final journey through the stadium just a few blocks from here as part of the opening ceremonies.

Why? Why show up to a guaranteed non-event?

I wondered the same myself 15 years ago in Detroit as I shuddered in the rain wearing the white “torch bearer t-shirt” and shorts. Finally 2 hours later I received the handoff of the flame to my torch, lit it and began to run. In less than 100 yards I exited a forest preserve area and entered the city proper. Rather than a fun evening event for a family at 8pm on a balmy Friday night, it was now 11pm and raining steadily – who would stay out now? I knew I had to run only 1 mile, but no one had conditioned me for the impossible reality that somehow, someway, 100,000 people were still there lined 7 and 8 deep for a mile, screaming and cheering, watching the flame bounce in my unsteady grasp. All that effort just to watch this – this arbitrary passing of the flame. Why? Why did they bother? Who cares? As an Olympian I didn’t quite ask those questions, but I did wonder.

I finished my leg of the run, passed on the flame to the next runner and extinguished my torch and then proceeded to ignore the very adamant advice by the torch bearer team to empty my torch’s butane tank (it still fires up beautifully 14 years later!) and then I went home.

This is where the mystery starts. I ran the leg, got wet, tired out my arm, and went home. Apparently (and I don’t remember this) a few days later I brought the same torch to the beach clubhouse where I had grown up and where I worked on and off with my mom selling candy and flipping burgers. I apparently showed it to a little girl named Meryl and her parents, who lived a couple houses away on the street behind us.

The fact that this happened, and that I don’t remember it, reminds me of a quote worth repeating from someone I care about deeply about:

“I guess you never know what role you may play in someone’s life or just how important the things you choose to do or say or choose not to do or say may turn out to be.”

The father of a good friend said just those words to me four years ago almost to the day when his son won an Olympic medal in Torino and again I was reminded of the effects and outcomes of words and deeds – someone is always watching.

As it turns out, little girl living just a couple houses away was watching and saw something that mattered – or at least her parents did.

The little girl isn’t little anymore – she’s 23, and she’s here in Vancouver on her first Olympic team. Her name is one you may well get to know in the coming days - it is Meryl Davis, and she’s very, very good at her sport of figure skating (ice dance). As Dick Ebersol relayed clearly to the broadcast team yesterday, she and her partner Charlie White are one of the potential breakout stories of this Olympics.

I only learned all this four days ago, and a day later I found myself on the phone with Cheryl Davis, Meryl’s mom. Cheryl was recalling that moment in the beach clubhouse, and how important it had become in their lives.

Last night I was fortunate enough to have dinner with figure skating Olympians Paul Caruthers, Kristi Yamaguchi and Paul Wylie and they all indicated that the “energy” in this subjective sport was warming towards Meryl and Charlie as potential gold medal favorites.

I guess you never know what role you may play in someone’s life…”

I wish this little girl the very best in the coming days.