2002 in HICKORY, NC. Six years later the Olympics returned to the United States. Coke made it harder to become a torchbearer, but did take applications for torch relay escorts. I was selected to participate in Hickory, NC. In advance of the February Olympics, the torch passed through Hickory in early December 2001.
I received my purple uniform in the mail: long-sleeve tee, warmup pants, zip-front pullover, stocking cap, and gloves. All quite nice. With the advent of the internet, I was able to follow the relay’s progress across the country.
On the day of the relay I headed out before sunrise and drove up I-85. We assembled at Dale Jarrett Ford in Hickory. The day was sunny, but chilly. I left the gloves and pullover in my car, opting to run in the long-sleeve tee. A good choice.
Each escort would run with three or four torchbearers. On the drop-off bus we went around and introduced ourselves. Each torchbearer had an inspirational story. One torchbearer did not show, and it was later announced that they had just passed away. It was unclear what would happen to their spot.
I got off the bus with a torchbearer, and soon we were on our way. Though I wasn’t the one in the white uniform carrying the torch, I was still able to soak up the experience. One of my torchbearers was the principal of the elementary school we passed. All his students lined the road, cheering him on. A very touching moment.
When my turn was over, I boarded the pickup bus. It was then that I realized I hadn’t asked one of the torchbearers to let me briefly hold the lit torch. At that moment, and even now, that hardly mattered to me. I was so happy to have been part of the experience.
The escort after me, a young girl, ran alongside the first torchbearer on her route. The second torchbearer was the absent one. Unbeknownst to the young escort, the plan all along was for her to carry that leg of the relay. Looking out the front window, we were witness to the excitement sweeping her face as the torch was handed to her. Later when she boarded our bus, we all gathered around and congratulated her.
When we returned to Dale Jarrett Ford, it was unclear what would happen to the escort’s torch. She eventually was able to purchase it. Had she not bought it, I was ready to write a check and add it to my collection. Even without it, participating in the relay remains a cherished memory.
That evening the relay stopped in Charleston. Later it came through Atlanta. Knowing the route, during lunch I drove some co-workers down Peachtree Industrial. Near Oglethorpe we saw a transfer point to wait at, but the relay was running behind schedule. We hopped back in the car and drove south down Peachtree. Near Lenox Square traffic stopped. I rolled down the window and saw Evander Holyfield run past, carrying the torch.
Two years later the Rome Olympic Torch Relay made a quick stop in Atlanta on Father’s Day weekend. Will and I were able to see it pass by Ansley Mall. To this day, tracking the torch relay is a fun, and personal, experience.