The Casual Runner

My Most Memorable Mile: Olympic Torchbearer

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Mike posing with the 2010 Vancouver Olympic & Paralympic cauldron.

We here at Casual Runner focus a lot on First Miles as they are significant events in every Casual Runner’s journey.  You all know the story of my First Mile, it is one that I will certainly never forget.

As we sit here on the day of the official opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics, I cannot help but think, not of my first mile, but of a mile that I ran that was indescribably meaningful and remains deeply personally significant to me to this day.

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Mike’s visit to Utah Olympic Park after the Games.

You see, in the summer of 2001, as I prepared to begin my first year of law school, a package arrived at my house. It contained a letter informing me that I had been selected as an Olympic torchbearer! Coca-Cola ran a program where people could nominate every day people for the honor of helping to bring the Olympic flame from Greece to Salt Lake City, Utah, where the 2002 Olympic Winter Games would be held. All I knew was that my brother Frank nominated me, that someone, somehow, selected me, and that I would cherish every moment.

Fast forward to a frigidly cold early winter’s morning at a hotel in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. January 2, 2002 was as cold of a morning as I can recall, and organizers told us to meet in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel at what seemed like the middle of the night. There I stood in the lobby with my family, the excitement indescribable. Even though I barely slept the night before, my eyes were as wide open as a kid on Christmas morning. I was going to be a part of the Olympics!

Having my family there to support me made this even more meaningful. Having my brother there as my support runner, well, I could not have scripted it any better. For every torchbearer there is a cadre of support runners who are there to take up the torch or provide whatever other support may be needed. My “entourage” would include my brother Frank.

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A look at the medals conferred on the Olympic champions at the Salt Lake City Games.

Organizers ushered the small collection of torchbearers and support runners to the awaiting shuttle busses, and on our way out, we met those entrusted to protect the Mother Flame – these are 2 miner’s lanterns that keep the Olympic flame going even if one of the torches were to suffer a problem (which actually does happen).  After a few pictures with the Mother Flame we loaded up in the early morning darkness and were whisked away to our staging area.

The torchbearers filled the bus with a palpable nervous excitement, we could not believe our collective great fortune to have this opportunity. The speakers played a collection of John Williams’ greatest Olympic anthems, and a few tears were shed as we passed around and signed the official torchbearer’s book.  The windows were frosted over so we could not see outside, we were in our own little Olympic bubble.

Then, they called my name. As the rest of the bus started to cheer, my brother and I jumped to our feet and made our way to the front of the bus, returning the offered high-5s along the way. The relay official gave me a hug and whispered to me “cherish this moment.” Oh, I most certainly would!

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Mike attended the medal ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

We hopped off the bus into…nothing. That’s right. The bus pulled away and left Frank and me standing on a street corner somewhere on the west side of Cleveland. It was so early in the morning it was still dark and there were not many cars to speak of, just the two of us standing there in our matching uniforms and me holding a torch. So we waited, and waited. It seemed like forever.

Out of the morning darkness a motorcycle pulled up with a gentleman in an Olympic uniform, who said “Good morning, are we ready to do this?”

All I could say was “Yes, but where is everybody?”

He laughed and responded, “Oh, just you wait.” Within moments we saw police lights coming up the road, leading a large caravan of vehicles, including media trucks and a truck hauling the celebration cauldron used at various stops along the relay route. With that, the gentleman reached out for my torch and turned a key to activate the gas cylinder inside, we could see the flame approaching in the distance. He handed the torch back to me and said: “This is your moment. We’re counting on you. Enjoy it!”

(Yes, I am getting a little emotional sitting here typing this).

As the torchbearer approached me and offered the flame, I reciprocated by lowering my own torch, and then, in an instant, my torch was aglow. This was my moment. I was the guardian of the Olympic flame.

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Mike attended the medal ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

I turned to my brother and we ran down the street, together.

We made a turn and suddenly found ourselves among morning rush hour traffic…cars came to a sudden stop and commuters jumped from their cars to cheer us on and get a glimpse of the Olympic flame. This was the days before cellphone cameras, but yet some commuters managed to snap a few shots. We waved, we smiled, we soaked up every moment.

We saw our family cheering us from the sidewalk and then hurry to follow along the route. They were as enthusiastic as any family ever was, making our Olympic moment so much more magical.

I saw that our time was nearing an end, so I stopped and turned to Frank, surprising him by telling him to grab the torch. I cleared my plan with the officials beforehand, my brother and I would finish this relay together, both holding the flame aloft. We approached the next torchbearer hand in hand with the flame glowing spectacularly in the cold morning darkness. Frank released his grip and I offered him the flame and the opportunity to enjoy this experience to the next torchbearer, careful not to let the torches touch (we were warned not to let the beautiful crystal tops touch as they could shatter in the cold temperatures). He turned and carried the flame along on its journey.  Just like that, the flame left me, officials extinguished my flame, and whisked me onto an awaiting bus.

I turned to talk to Frank, but he wasn’t there. The official told me “Oh, he kept going.” You see, Frank was smart enough to figure out that, while there could only be 1 white-uniformed torchbearer on the course at a time, there was no limit to the number of purple-uniformed support runners on the course. So he decided to keep going, and going, and going! While my Olympic moment lasted less than a half a mile, his lasted significantly longer than that. Lucky guy, and smart too!

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Mike visiting the now-extinguished cauldron for the 2002 Winter Games.

The following month, when I saw the memories of the 1980 gold medal hockey team gather to light the Olympic Cauldron in Salt Lake City, I grew overwhelmed by a sense a pride like none other that I ever experienced before. I helped get that flame there. I participated in a simple yet powerfully symbolic tradition to help inspire the world. Or, in the words of the 2002 Olympic motto, to light the fire within! 

I do not know that I will ever have the great fortune to run another mile as memorable, magical, or momentous as I did on that cold day in January 2002, but if I do, I will relish every moment.

Enjoy the freedom of going wherever your feet, imagination, & determination take you!

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Enjoy the freedom of going wherever your feet, imagination, & determination take you!

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