It's a blaze of glory for torchbearers

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article

Other links
Salt Lake Olympics site on

Two minutes into what would prove to be the fastest four minutes of my life, it finally occurred to me to look up.

There, somehow magically jutting above my right arm, which was connected to a body jogging about 4 feet off the ground, was the reason for all the fuss.

The flame.

As you prepare to carry it, the Salt Lake Olympic Torch Relay organizers tell you a lot about it: How it's a "sister flame" to a mother flame lit by high priestesses in Greece. How it's been carried, to this point, more than 9,000 miles by 11,500 of the most incredible people on the planet — "ordinary heroes," an oxymoron to end them all.

It never occurs to them to remind you to pause, in the midst of a series of blurry moments etched on your brain forever, to make sure it's lit, and, seeing that, look the flame right in the face.

I did it almost by accident, right at the corner of Queen Anne Avenue North and Mercer Street, in the center of one of the many slices of America through which the torch will pass on its 13,500-mile trek to Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

I hope whoever lights the cauldron for the XIX Winter Games remembers to pause, make eye contact with the flame, and let its flickering light reveal the gravity of the moment.

It's an instant that's different for everyone. Witness our little group of eight torchbearers who bonded on the shuttle bus awaiting the final couple miles of road to the Seattle Center climax of Puget Sound's torch visit.

I'm betting Sondra Clark, 12, of Bellingham, who expertly passed the flame to me at the bottom of the Queen Anne Counterbalance, looked into the light, heard the cheers from the crowd and wondered if anything in her young life would ever match this thrill.

I'm guessing Megan Quann, 18, of Puyallup, a double gold medalist at the Sydney Games, was relishing it as another dose of sweet payback for all those 4:15 a.m. training wake-up calls that stretch as far into her past as she can remember — and as far into her future as she dare imagine.


Watching that flame dance around in its hand-blown-glass globe, I thought of Bill Stanley.

Never met the guy. But two hours before, his son, Todd, was the first in our group of torchies to extend his hand at our gathering point.

Only much later, waiting on a shuttle bus, where torch organizers goaded participants into admitting why they were nominated for this honor, did he spill the beans.

Todd, 34, a Renton firefighter, watched his dad struggle and — waiting in vain for a liver transplant — nearly die in 1999.

Todd decided this was not an option.

He donated 70 percent of his liver in a complicated operation that nearly killed him.

"I was dead for 8 seconds," he confessed a few moments later in the back of the bus, when no one else but one nosey writer was listening. "I don't like to talk about that part much, because I like to get out a message that's pro-organ transplant."

He's almost back to 100 percent, doing the job he loves. He would make the same choice tomorrow.

"Man, I know I'm going to cry," he told me, grinning ear to ear moments before I was thrust off the bus and into the maelstrom. "My Dad is going to be there at the finish. This will be so huge for him."

Second greatest moment of Todd's life, he said. Guess the first.

Those are the kind of people who carry the torch.

Looking into the eyes of the flame, I thought once again about how lucky I was just to be here.

"I wasn't nominated by anyone," I confessed, apologetically, to the group when my turn came. "But when they invited someone to come write about you guys, I sort of insisted it be me."

I thought I had good reason.

I've been writing about sports for years, but the truth is, much of what passes for it sours my stomach.

"I don't belong on a bus full of heroic people," I told them. "But I think I know one when I see one. Maybe that's why I'm here."

The problem with knowing a hero when you see one is that, in what passes for sport in America today, sightings are increasingly rare.

Sure, moments occur when sport truly transcends all the muck, mire and money surrounding it. I've seen a few. Several have even moved me to tears.

But only three times was the experience so profound I didn't blink them away and pretend otherwise.

The first was in 1998 in Nagano. On the way into Opening Ceremonies, the media bus wound for miles through a bleak area outside of town where there was absolutely nothing to see. Nothing, except the faith that in this spot, sometime soon, the Olympic flame would pass on its way to lighting the cauldron.

As far as the eye could see, people lined the street. Three hours before the torch was scheduled to arrive, children by the thousands were pressed up against the curb. Straining. Just to get close to the flame.

It was the first time I saw through the hype and doping scandals and egregious sponsorship floating around the Olympics and realized how much the Olympic ideal — flawed as it might be — means to people around the globe.

The second came at Sydney's Opening Ceremonies, where Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal woman in a country with a legacy of hostility to both, lit the cauldron in a Stadium Australia spectacular that served as nothing less than a national catharsis.

That night, tears welled in my eyes and I will never forget what I wrote on my notepad: "Time stands still."

The third was last night.

It didn't happen when I saw the flame spring to life in my hands. Nor when my family met me with hugs at the point where my torch was extinguished. Not even when I stood there and had people, mistaking me for someone who really mattered, asking to have their picture taken with any small part of an event which, starting Feb. 8, will bring 80 nations together to do something, thankfully, other than try to kill each other.

It was 20 minutes later, rushing back to the car. There, in a dark parking lot, with light towers being pulled down and people headed home, was a large group of people embraced in a group hug, posing for pictures.

In the middle of them, holding the torch in one hand and his family in the other, was a young guy in white, grinning like a maniac, gripping the torch as if afraid to ever, ever let go.

Todd Stanley, his father, and family. Caught in the act in the second greatest moment of their lives.

I'll always remember it as one of the best ever in mine.

Ron C. Judd can be reached at 206-464-8280 or