Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Olympic Moment

For my last blog entry of 2009, I think it is appropriate to recount the details of my most memorable activity of the year—the Olympic Torch Relay.

I have said before that this blog is just as much a journal for me as it is a synopsis of my life in Canada for others to read. To that end, I want to relate as many details about the torch relay as I can put in writing. I’m not getting any younger, and I want to capture as much of the experience and emotion as possible so that, in the future, I can read this and remember everything about the special day.

Luckily, Sarah returned to North America the night before,as scheduled, but without her luggage. I picked her up from the airport in Buffalo on the night of Sunday, Dec. 27. We got home after midnight and went straight to bed as my segment of the torch relay was the next day.

We were less than pleased to see the deteriorating weather conditions out the window when we woke up on the morning of the 28th. The only person I had actually asked to come to the relay with me was my friend Justyna, and that was mainly because I wanted someone to be a backup to take photos just in case Sarah wasn’t back from England in time. I didn’t want anyone else to feel obligated to travel almost three hours on a holiday to see me run 300 meters. But, in the week prior to the relay, I discovered that some of my friends in Canada had been planning to come watch all along. As much as I had been wishing for true Canadian winter weather for the run, when Sarah and I saw the road conditions, we were a bit worried about what the drive would entail for everyone.

We left around 11 am as I had to be at the torchbearer meeting point in Kincardine by 2:30 pm. Justyna rode with Sarah and me, and we followed our friends Kathy and Monique. Unfortunately, there are no four-lane highways that go from Kitchener-Waterloo to Kincardine, and in fact, there aren’t even any highways that go partway. We were on two-lane roads through the countryside the entire way. By the time we were an hour out of KW, the weather was getting much worse and the roads icier. The sky was alternating between snow and hail, and the wind was blowing strong without a break. As we got closer and closer to the Lake Huron shore, the weather conditions deteriorated further. The roads were mainly snow-covered and icy, and at times it looked like we were two-tracking.

I was happy that Sarah agreed to drive, and Justyna navigated, so all I had to do was sit in the back seat lamenting that I would only be running 300 meters. I mentioned that I would run slowly to make the experience last as long as possible. I also began to wonder how the flame would hold up in the unyielding winds. Driving in winter weather stresses me out like nothing else, so I let Sarah stress and enjoyed the ride.

We finally arrived in Kincardine just before 2 and stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee. I was too nervous to eat or drink anything. Despite the pleas from my traveling companions, I didn’t go in with my torchbearer outfit on. But, once inside Tim’s, we saw two other torchbearers there, in full regalia, with their families. So, I put on my outfit and we headed to the meeting point.

Tiverton is 8 miles away from Kincardine, so Sarah and the girls dropped me off at the meeting point, and they all headed to the point where we suspected I would be starting my run in Tiverton. All alone, I went into the library for the pre-relay meeting and saw that almost all the other torchbearers for the Kincardine-Tiverton segments were already there.

Ten people would be running with the torch in these two cities. Seven were in Kincardine and three were in Tiverton. As I sat down, Scott, the organizer, informed us that some of us would be running more than 300 meters, which was a pleasant surprise. He explained that 300 meters was the minimum, and since they couldn’t always be exact in the segment distances, some would be going further. He started going through the list of runners and named a couple of people who would go 400 meters. I was torchbearer 124, and I was thinking, “Please say 124 is going 400 meters!” He didn’t say my number. Instead, he said, “Okay, that’s all. It looks like the rest of you are doing 300 meters. . . .oh, wait. Who is number 124?” I sheepishly raised my hand. He then said, “Oh, you’ll be going 500 meters, the longest anyone is allowed to go in this relay!” I was so excited. I was going almost double the distance I was expecting to go.

The next part of the meeting involved learning about the relay itself. Then, we were each asked to explain how we were selected for the relay and what the experience means to us. I could feel myself starting to get nervous and I wondered how I could talk about any of this without crying. I heard the others speak about their experiences in organized sports, about disabled members of their families, about their military experience, about their involvement in youth sports, etc. When they came to me, what I said was something like this (it probably came out a little choppier, but this is what I was saying in my head):

“Yesterday I was talking to one of my friends who was adopted, and she said that when she was a kid and was told she was adopted, they said that she was extra special because she was chosen.

"I am not from Canada. I’m from the US. I had to move to Canada because my spouse was having immigration problems in the US. So, we chose Canada. We could have moved almost anywhere, but we chose Canada. I haven’t been in Canada a very long time, but it is now my home country, and it’s really important to me to be involved in the torch relay because it is something that is so valuable to the country. It’s a way for me to feel like I belong. I can’t say it makes me feel like I am giving back to Canada by doing this, because this is something that Canada has given to me, which is a great honor. But, it’s meaningful to me to be part of an event like this in my adopted country.

"The part of the US I’m from does not have a lot of opportunities for women’s hockey, so when I moved to Canada, one of the first things I did was sign up to play hockey. I’m not very good at it yet, but playing has been a great experience.”

I had to throw that last bit in there because everyone else in the room had been sure to mention details about their involvement with sports.

After this, we were given more details on the logistics of the relay, and in particular, how to hold the torch based on the direction of the wind. We were told that this was the snowiest and one of the windiest days of the relay so far.

We took a quick break before getting on the shuttle bus, and I went outside to call Sarah to tell her I was now going 500 meters. While I was making the call, I noticed the weather had become even worse. Tiny hail rocks and snowflakes were whipping past horizontally. Just a note on the weather—the low temperature that day was –9C (15 degrees for my Fahrenheit friends). The winds were gusting at 80 km/hour (50 mph for my non-metric readers). I can’t even find any info on what the wind chill was, but considering the average temperature of the day was around –5C (23F) and considering the speed of the wind, the wind chill could have easily been in negative double digits Celsius (below 0 F).

Next, all ten of us torchbearers boarded the shuttle and were given our own numbered torches. As soon as we were on the bus and ready to go, we noticed that a fairly large crowd had gathered outside the bus, so we all went back out with our torches and posed for pictures for about ten minutes. Then it was back on the bus to travel to the start of the route in Kincardine where the first torchbearer would be dropped off.

We arrived at the beginning of the route and had to wait for about 10 minutes for the rest of the torch convoy to arrive. During this time, another crowd had gathered around. The first torchbearer disembarked from the shuttle only to be swarmed by people wanting their pictures with her and the opportunity to hold a torch.

Before long, the rest of us were on our way, driving slowly through the main streets of Kincardine. The population of this town is only about 12,000, but I would expect that well over half of the residents were there lining the streets. I’ve been in parades before, but this was different. The spectators were not there to casually watch and be entertained by floats or politicians, or to try to catch candy. They were there with their Canadian flags and their patriotic clothing, and they were genuinely excited to see the actual Olympic flame. Our shuttle was stopping approximately every 300 meters to drop off the next torchbearer, who would then wait about five minutes for the prior torchbearer to pass the flame on. The slow drive down the street really drove home the significance of the event.

What made an impression on me the most was the reaction of the people on the side of the streets. Because our shuttle was going so slowly, any remaining torchbearers on the shuttle were waving at the spectators as we went past. The look of excitement on people’s faces when they realized that the waving red-mittened hands on the bus were those of other torchbearers was overwhelming. I tried my best to wave and make eye contact with as many people as possible. I didn’t have to try to smile—that just came naturally. But, every time that my eyes locked with people’s on the street, their eyes would light up and they would start waving frantically. I will never forget the thrill that was apparent in those faces. I was overcome with emotion because I had never in my life had such power to make others so happy with so little effort.

In time, we dropped off the last Kincardine torchbearer, and the driver, the organizer, me, and the other two remaining torchbearers headed towards Tiverton at a much higher speed. We arrived in Tiverton to the same sort of reception as we had in Kincardine, just on a slightly smaller scale as Tiverton only has a population of about 1000. Still, I think there were well over 1000 people out to watch on the main streets of that town.

It wasn’t long before I was the last torchbearer on the bus. We were going through the center of town and I started running up and down the aisle of the shuttle. Scott the organizer said to me, “Mary, are you excited?” I said, “Yes, I’m too excited to sit down so I thought I’d get warmed up!”

He asked if I had any family attending. I told him that no, my family lived to far away to travel to this. But I did say, “You know, I have only been in Canada about a year and a half, but there are nine people who traveled the 2.5 hours here today to watch me. I am really, really lucky to have such friends.”

He replied, “Yeah, those are really good friends. I’m happy to hear that. What a great story.”

He then got out of his seat and was looking out the open door of the shuttle, and suddenly I heard him shout to the crowd outside, “Hey! You guys must know this girl in here!” I ran over to look out and saw the whole group of my friends running along the side of the bus shouting. That was definitely one of the most emotional moments of the day for me. The bus stopped and the driver started blasting the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” I jumped out and was immediately swarmed by my friends. I was so nervous and excited, I could hardly talk to anyone, and the next five minutes are kind of a blur in my mind. I do remember a few of the townspeople coming up to ask for a photo with me. I was extremely flattered and obliged. Also, whenever anyone approached me for a photo, I extended the torch and offered it to them to hold. They were kind of astonished and hesitated, but then they were really excited, grasped the torch and had more photos taken. Again, I was making people really happy with almost no effort.

Soon enough, the torchbearer preceding me was in sight. I was ushered by an attendant to the middle of the snowpacked road and positioned for the media cameras as he used his key to turn on the gas cylinder in my torch. There was a hush as the flame was transferred to my torch, and I experienced that brief moment of fear that my torch would not light. It did light, the flame appeared, and the wind almost extinguished it immediately. But, the flame prevailed. I paused for just a second to take in the momentousness, and then something I can’t explain took over my body and I took off running, holding the torch as high as I could while keeping my balance. I don’t even think I made a conscious decision to start running. It was like the energy of the flame went down through the torch, through my arm, and into my heart and took over my body.

I suddenly became aware of the torch relay escorts running beside me. I said to them, “Wow, you guys certainly get your exercise, don’t you?” They just looked at me and didn’t respond. I don’t think they had much breath available for speaking. Then I said, “Well, that’s good. You can eat whatever you want tonight!” When I am nervous, I often say stupid things.

I was trying my best to remember to wave at the people lining the streets to watch when a commotion on the right side of the road got my attention. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing out of my peripheral vision—it was my “pack” of nine friends running along the sidewalk trying to keep up. My friend Sue yelled out, “Mary, slow down! Savor the moment!” Whatever energy had taken over my muscle motor control was not aware of my intentions to run slowly to make the moment last. I was running fairly quickly and I tried to ease the pace but couldn’t! I shouted back, “I can’t slow down! It’s the adrenaline!!”

I took as many mental snapshots as I could, in between checking the flame to make sure the gusty wind hadn’t blown it out. I saw whole kids’ hockey teams in their jerseys. I saw elderly people struggling just to stand. I saw all kinds of people with bright red faces, all bundled up in their warmest (or at least their warmest patriotic) winter outerwear. I saw the group holding the “Welcome to Tiverton” sign. I saw whole families huddled together. I heard another commotion, which turned out to be a group of kids who wanted to run behind me in the road the whole way. Someone in my entourage yelled out, “Mary is like the Pied Piper of the torch relay!” The police quickly diverted the kids to the side of the road as no one else was allowed to be so close to the procession.

I felt my arm getting tired and switched hands. The torch weighed almost 4 pounds. I tried to slow down again but couldn’t. I looked up at the flame during one particularly hard gust of wind and saw it blow out, or so I thought. I cried “Nooooooo!” and then held the torch with both hands, willing it back to life, and thankfully saw the flame come back. The return of the flame gave me an extra burst of energy, which was needed as I could feel my lungs, which do not operate properly in very cold conditions, starting to seize up. I looked ahead beyond the crowds of people and saw farm fields and realized I was nearing the end. One of the escorts told me to follow him to the side of the road, where I knew my job would be to light the flame in the lantern in the convoy vehicle that carries the flame from one town to the next. I stopped running and did my job. My torch was then turned off by one of the escorts and I was quickly conducted to the pickup shuttle.

I collapsed into one of the seats on the shuttle and realized how exhausted I was. My face was numb from cold, and I was wheezing. The other torchbearers were apparently already rested up and sharing tales of their moments, but I had no breath for speaking. I couldn’t believe it was over. I know this is not possible, but it really felt like the whole experience had lasted about 20 seconds.

All of us torchbearers were all dropped off back in Kincardine at our meeting point. Because I was the last torchbearer in this segment, my entourage was not there to pick me up yet. One by one, the other torchbearers left with their families. Soon I was by myself, sitting in front of the library in the chilling wind. It was now getting quite dark as it was after 5 pm on one of the shortest days of the year. I didn’t really feel the cold. I just sat there reflecting on my day. I suddenly recognized that I was only about 200 yards from the edge of Lake Huron, something I had not noticed earlier that day because the blowing snow had so diminished visibility. I grew up very close to Lake Michigan, and I feel a strong connection with all the Great Lakes. I looked out over Lake Huron as far as I could see and thought about how my home state of Michigan was only 50 miles over that water. I had just finished the most notable experience of my life in Canada so far, and I was peering across the water towards my former homeland. I thought about all of my Canadian friends who had travelled such a long way to support me, I thought about the sense of pride and patriotism that I was feeling for Canada, and I concluded that I had come a long way in 16 months—certainly more than 500 meters or even 50 miles.

My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of my pack in their own convoy. We had a special photo session so I could get my picture with all of them. We decided that as it was now dark and the weather was not improving, we would go back to KW and have a dinner celebration there.

Ah, if only it was that easy. I thought the ride to Kincardine was dicey. The ride back was three times as bad. Because it was dark and the snow was blowing to hard across the farm fields and the roads in between, most of the trip was in a complete whiteout. Luckily we weren’t in a hurry, so we took our time. Almost three hours later, we arrived at Moose Winooski’s in Kitchener. I asked my friends if they expected me to wear my torchbearer outfit into the restaurant. I was pretty much told I had no choice. I was worried that everyone would think I was showing off or trying to get attention, but I reluctantly entered the building in my outfit and with my torch in hand.

I couldn’t believe what happened next. Almost immediately, people started coming up to me and asking me about the relay and requesting to have their photos with me. I was very happy to do that, because again, I was humbled to be in a situation where I could make people happy with minimal effort. I encouraged people to hold the torch and get their photos with it. One group of people at the restaurant were there for a lady’s 60th birthday. That lady had several photos with me and the torch and then said to me, “You know, today is my 60th birthday, and you have just made my day!”

Eventually I was able to settle down and have a drink with my friends, but occasionally other people would come by and ask for a photo. I was so honored to think that people wanted their photo with me, there was no way I was declining those requests. Some people just wanted their picture on their own with the torch, and that was great too.

Sarah said she was surprised that I was so relaxed about letting people handle the torch. I said, “Well, why wouldn’t I be? It makes people happy. Besides, I really feel like it doesn’t belong to me—it belongs to all Canadians.”

As I am writing this now, it is three days after the actual torch relay. I still am on a high and am having trouble focusing on anything. What a way to end my year!


MSEH said...

What a fabulous post. Thanks for sharing your story.

Jamie said...

I can't believe I missed you and the torch. Thanks for sharing the photo and experience. You are my "CANADIAN" hero of the day!

cls said...

Thank you for writing about your experience as an Olympic torch relay participant. It sounds like you had a fabulous time. How wonderful for you!
All the best for 2010.

Amanda said...

Wow, you have always been such a great writer. I can feel the pride and euphoria in your words and goosebumps all over. Your picture is up in the dept because you're still a hero around here. Congrats on your moment in Canadian and MJB history!

Brittomart said...

MJB! This entry brought tears to my eyes! How WONDERFUL for you. What an
experience! I m glad to hear you have a circle of awesome, dedicated
friends there who support you and love you. I am going to post this
picture of you running with the torch at my cube (if that's okay with you).

congratulations, and what a welcome home from Canada! ;-)