Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Guest Post by Erin Stanford, An Olympic Torch Bearer

I came across Erin through Twitter after seeing many posts from her about carrying the Olympic Torch in Calgary on January 18, 2010. We sent messages back and forth for awhile and then I got the idea to ask her to do a guest post for my blog about her experience. The following post is from Erin as she describes what that moment was like and the time leading up to carrying the Torch.  I am so happy she accepted my invite.

A day in the life of a torch bearer

I sit here, just shy of 68 hours past the time when I held the Olympic flame for a few, far too brief moments. You would think that by now I'd have no difficulties putting my words to paper (or at least to a Google document) and yet, I still am having great difficulties wrapping my mind around the fact that I *was* a torchbearer for the Vancouver 2010 Games. Wow!
Something you need to know about me is that I'm a Calgarian. Born & raised. I'm old enough to have a good memory of the spirit of the Calgary '88 Games and the fever with which they took over the city. I was just barely old enough for my parents to consent to my girlfriends and I heading down to Olympic Plaza to watch the medal ceremonies, without parental supervision. Attended a few events, as well as both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Sadly I did not have the opportunity to participate in them. My mother was a volunteer and the oldest of my younger brothers was in the Opening Ceremonies. I was stuck babysitting my other two brothers to allow my mother and brother to have their parts. So beyond that of a spectator and a Calgarian, I did not have an Olympic legacy of my own to share and pass on through stories and photos.
The most frequent question I've been asked is how did I end up being a torchbearer. On a whim, I entered my name a few times into one of the torchbearer contests Coca Cola ran in 2009. Of course I could not just enter one where they drew a name and that was it, but rather I went for the Coca Cola Live Positively program. I was one of the lucky Canadians to have their name drawn, which allowed you to move on to the second portion of the competition, which was to submit a short essay, illustrating your commitment to active living or the environment. I wrote about a life-changing journey that led to the loss of 120 lbs and how it impacted my life and those around me. Very humbled and honoured that Coca Cola and their panel of experts deemed me worthy of representing them and bestowing upon me the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch. That is the extremely condensed version of the story.
Just over six months passed between my being selected and my run date. For the most part it was just a little morsel of information that was tucked in the back of my brain. I would get the odd email, reminding me of what I would soon be doing. December rolled around and on December 2, 2009 I received an email with the details of my run. Until this day, I knew that I was running on Day 81 (January 18, 2010) and somewhere along the leg from Lethbridge, AB to Calgary, AB. I fully expected to be running in one of the smaller communities between the two. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be running in Calgary. Had not even entertained the possibility. Then on December 16, 2009 my torch relay package arrived, complete with my uniform and cheer kit from Coca Cola! Finally fully hit home. Media requests, interviews, amazing packages from friends and thoughtful cards really got me ramped up, emotional and excited about the big day! The outpouring of support I received was absolutely tremendous. It got to the point where tears were frequent and plentiful when thinking about what was about to happen in my life - so much so that I started to worry that I was going to be a basket case come the day of the relay!

The night before the relay, I got everything prepped and ready. Paranoia struck because I was just so worried that I was going to forget something! Had my outfit hanging, with my hat and mitts. My small backpack packed and sent with a family member, for the Calgary celebration after the relay, another bag with my running gear, shoes and lunch for work. I started wishing I had taken the relay day off completely, instead of leaving a few hours early. In hind sight, I'm glad I went in, as it helped the first part of the day pass quickly.
I am amazed that I had no issues sleeping the night before. I usually do when I'm excited, nervous or worked up about something. Woke up a grand 10 minutes before my alarm and leisurely got ready for the day. A nice surprise is that my sons got ready with little drama. We were all out of the house on time - them to school, myself to work. As the morning progressed and I received more and more messages of support from my amazing friends and questions from my co-workers, nerves started setting in. Around 11:30am, I looked at the clock and started thinking about lunch and realized that I had no desire to eat - I did though, as we all know the importance of eating.
2:00 pm arrived and it was time for me to start getting ready! Hauled all my things to the bathroom at work (let me tell you how nice it is to be the only girl at my office when it means I get a bathroom all to myself!) Got changed into my torch relay uniform, hat in place (I cheated and used a bobby pin to keep it just so, as the hat is somewhat oddly shaped, teamed with the fact that I hate hats.) I had wanted to touch my makeup up and realized that while I had brought my makeup with me, my makeup brushes were sitting on the bathroom counter at home. I guess if I were to forget something, that was probably one of the few things I could have survived without. Stopped at Macs on my way to get a slurpee to drink enroute (I'm an addict) and had the music cranked loud. Just wanted to enjoy the moment and get hyped up and not spend my time starting to worry and fret about what was coming up.
I took a very small detour on my way to city hall, as my leg of the relay was on my way from my office to city hall, as long as I took a few side roads as opposed to all the major intersections. Found my route marker that had my torchbearer number on it. Of course I had to get out of the car & take the opportunity to send a photo to Twitter for my friends and followers to see. Things really started sinking in right about then. After a few minutes to think, I was back on my way downtown. Pretty awesome driving along Macleod Trail, seeing a few Torch Relay flags flying from traffic light standards. Traffic got heavier the closer I got, as a three block stretch of Macleod was closed to traffic due to setup for the Calgary City Celebration. Started getting nervous that even though I had left myself enough time, three times over to get there, that I would be late because traffic was that slow. They had a police officer directing traffic at the intersection closest to the parkade I needed to get to and he saw me in my torchbearer uniform, smiled and waved me through the intersection, stopping cars coming from the other direction. Was parked and on my way in no time.
One thing I noticed, as I made my way through the parkade, through the walkways and into city hall, was that while people wouldn't stop to ask questions or talk, I got a lot of smiles from people as I passed them. Impossible to miss those uniforms! Although I was a little early, there were a few others milling around as it was easy to spot the relay staff. Got pointed in the right direction for my group and entered the room. There were at least eight others in there already, but it was so quiet! I was amazed. You could have heard a pin drop in there. I do not know if it was nerves, people reflecting or what. I sat down and waited a minute or two before starting to converse with a woman sat near me. Before long others were talking as well and the room was filling with energy. It was amazing to talk to people and find so many different stories as to who people were and how they got there. Staff started placing torches on an empty table and things just started buzzing! Throughout the time when talking and mingling occurred, we each went up to check in and have the sticker with our torchbearer number applied to our jacket. Once everyone was accounted for, we were on our way...
We all stood in a semi-circle of sorts, ordered by our torchbearer number. Our shuttle hosts (Sarah & a sweet young man who's name I cannot recall right now) shared their story with us, as to who they were and what this experience meant to them. How awesome would it be to be able to work on the entire relay?! That has to be one of the best jobs ever! They told us about the torch, the flame exchange and all kinds of other cool little things. Reviewed safety facts about the torch, how to hold it, what direction it faced and all those cool little things. Also learned about the flame keepers. A group of Canadian Aboriginal youth, who were entrusted with the job of keeping the flame with them at all times - day or night. Immediately to the left of each runner, you'll notice a teenager next to them. It is their job to keep watch over that flame. If a runner is tired, they are there to help bear the weight of the torch (it felt a lot heavier than expected), while letting the torchbearer still be the one to be carrying the torch. I spent a few moments talking to the young lady that was with me and she was telling me what an honour it was to have that responsibility. I can only imagine!
We then spent a few minutes talking to those on either side of us - those that we would receive the flame from (Lana for me) and who we would pass the flame to (Kelly.) Went around and introduced the person we would pass to the group - their name, where they were from and what they love most about the Olympics. It was wonderful to learn these little things about each other and to find out that we had several former Olympians within our group, covering both the summer and winter games (including Kyle Shewfelt, who was so sweet!) Also several that were affiliated to the Games through various ways, be it media covering the event, regional people and someone that worked directly for VANOC. Very inspiring! I was blessed with an amazing "torch family." The realization that we were about to do something, where each of us would be the ONLY person in the world at some moment soon to do what we were doing (carrying the Olympic flame) was just a breathtaking and humbling realization! Wow! What else can you say about that? You think of all those things you do in life. No matter how unique, someone somewhere is likely doing the same thing. Sure different people around and surroundings. But this, THIS was something that only one person could do at a time, other than at the flame exchange where for a few brief seconds, you shared that moment with someone else.
Quickly time was approaching! A quick break for last minute bathroom trips and then we were gathering our things and being ushered out to the shuttles to head out for the time of our lives. We stood as a group, while our hosts took our picture, outside of the shuttle bus. I am hoping that this group shot one day gets into our hands! Then on the shuttle and away we went (4:25pm, with the first person due to start right around 5pm.) You could feel the excitement, anticipation and some nerves building. Such a surreal feeling! Music matched the mood. As we pulled away from city hall, "Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2 was playing, followed by "I Gotta Feeling" by Black Eyed Peas. At this point people were almost bouncing in their seats. We had pretty much reached the first drop off point for the first person on our leg of the relay. Amazing to see the crowds building & the cars backed up on one of the major routes during rush hour. Even the Hooters girls came running out in their outfits to check things out, which brought some levity within the group. A few of us started chatting about how hot we were. Those uniforms do not breathe! I get cold easily, so I had layer upon layer on, making me feel (& look in some of my photos) like an overgrown marshmallow. *lol* I was starting to wish I had skipped the hoodie I was wearing, on top of a few layers of tops under my shell.
The drop of shuttle is at the very beginning of the very large cavalcade. As each torchbearer gets off the bus, they get cheers & best wishes for the torchbearers waiting for their turn. A high 5 and encouraging words from the shuttle driver. A big hug & reminder to enjoy the experience from the other group host. Suddenly you're standing there on the side of the road, with family and friends that have gathered. Waving as the shuttle pulls away. I had a few moments to reflect on what was about to happen. One of my brothers & a friend were there waiting for me. The rest of my family and my sons were part of the way up the route (my drop off point was very icy and difficult to walk to, so made sense for the others to wait up where it was safer to stand and cheer from.) Chris Wheeler (@TorchReporter) was at my point as well & it's awesome that I made his recap video for day 81 of the relay. We noticed in the background that the City of Calgary had lit the Calgary Tower. During the '88 Olympics, the torch had been based on the shape and design of the Tower. They turned the actual tower into a real life torch with a flame burning bright above the city. Since then, it's only lit for special occasions. To see it burning bright in the background just sent shivers down me. At this point, I just became overwhelmed and quiet, taking everything in. In the days leading up to this, I thought for sure I would be all teary, but I wasn't.
From this point, everything seemed to happen both at light speed and in slow motion. A very bizarre feeling. The Coca Cola relay twitterers had sent me a message saying that once the torch is lit it becomes weightless. I was glad they did, because that torch was far heavier than we'd been told. A wee bit nervous about that. Parades of people started to come down in the relay parade. The Coca Cola wagon was alive & announced who I was over the mic to the crowd. I don't think I've been high 5'd as much as I was that day. Everyone who went by gave me one. At some point (it may have been before the whole parade of people - I don't quite remember) a police officer rode up on a bike and took his key to turn on my torch. All of a sudden there was this huge hiss of gas and I was surprised by how loud it was. This meant that my turn was just about there! I looked up the road and could see Lana running my way with the flame. Before I knew it, I was being placed in position to receive the flame.
That moment where I was stood there, facing my family & friends, waiting to receive the flame and start my turn was incredible. Just knowing that this was a momentous time and that I was responsible to carry this incredible symbol of love, sportsmanship, and spirit was inspiring and was a great reminder of the things I had done and overcome to be where I was at that very moment. Lana came near, tipping her torch towards mine and suddenly there was this big arc of fire, as the flame quite literally jumped from her torch to mine. I remember looking up and watching the amazement of it - nothing quite like I have ever seen before. In person, that flame is a heck of a lot bigger than it looks on TV! It was time to turn and start my run with the torch.
My section was short. It was also uphill (HA! Figures that would be my luck!) Obviously, I did not want my time to pass to quickly, so I opted to do a slow jog rather than run. Can you blame me for that? The torch was both heavy and weightless. Fortunately, with crowds gathered on both sides of the road, I was able to pass the torch from hand to hand, so that I could wave to everyone. I was in my own little world. It's amazing how the faces of complete strangers are burned into my memory. Cars were lined up and honking. People were lined up, waving flags, cheering! It was awesome! I know that they were there to see the flame, not me in particular, but I was the one that was carrying that. By nature, I'm fairly quiet and do not seek out the spotlight, preferring to step back and allow others that want to be there to have their time. But this, this was my moment. Nothing could have wiped the smile off my face.

Came up to where my family was and saw my boys smiling, proudly, holding their sign to cheer me on. Other family members were also holding banners, waving flags and holding a poster that my oldest son's class had made for me. The looks on the faces of my sons is something I will treasure in my heart forever. I yelled out to them, blew kisses. No doubt my oldest was embarrassed by that (the age!), but I did not care at the time. I was just so happy to have them there, for them to be able to see and share in my moment, as they have been with me step by step through this journey.
Once my family were out of site, I spent a few moments chatting with the girl that was running beside me and she shared with me how incredible of a job she had being one of those chosen to attend the flame. Wish I had gotten her name!
Rest of it all was just a blur of waving, smiling, honking and cheering! I had not really prepared for the volume of people that would be out for the relay and to share in this magical moment. Being in Calgary though, I should have known!

My moment was over far too soon! Before I knew it, it was my turn to pass off to Kelly. We had a few moments to stand there, waving to the crowd and having photos taken. I can't help but wonder just how many random people in this city now have my photo in their collection. Such an odd and funny thing to think about. Then Kelly was off on his way to have his moment. The same officer that turned on my torch then approached me and turned mine off. Did not have time to blink before the shuttle was there, picking me up. One last wave to the crowd and then I was back on the shuttle, with my torch family that had run before me, cheering and asking me how it was.
When a torchbearer gets back on the shuttle a few things happen. Your new shuttle host (ours was Heather), greets you and takes your torch. Having just been lit, it is obviously very hot. As it cools, down, your torch is opened, the fuel canister is removed and fuel line is disconnected. It is a really neat thing to watch. Also, there is a memory book that you fill out about your experience. I cannot even remember what I wrote. Some people are rather eloquent and introspective. I am not naturally one of these people, so I am certain I did not write anything beyond your typical yearbook drivel. However I was still absorbed and reliving what I had just done.
The shuttle was relatively quiet for the longest time. I think we were all just so busy internalizing and reflecting on things. Once the shuttle was half full, things started to buzz again. We were also just enjoying the moment - waving at the crowds that had gathered, watching the magic of the flame travelling in front of us. Being the group that got to carry the flame at dusk and through into darkness was a special treat. Definitely the best time to experience it all! Watching the flame glow so brightly!

By the time our last torchbearer was done, the shuttle was buzzing and alive again. That last torchbearer got the biggest cheer of all of us! A few reasons for this. Being the last person dropped off, they did not get the volume of fanfare the rest of us had gotten. Also, just that realization of what we had just experienced and were now done. At this point, we dropped away from the parade of the relay and returned back to city hall. Our host thanked us for allowing them all to share in this moment with us. Shared with us her favourite quote in the memory book, from a young boy out on the east coast (I cannot remember what it was right now, but I was amazed at the time that such a young person could write something so insightful & eloquent - look forward to getting my book in a few months so that I can look it up.) We all filed off the bus, got the box and bag for our torches and just slowly drifted off to resume our normal lives.
I headed over to the Calgary Celebration across the street, to meet up with a few of my family members and my sons. We took in the party and energy that had built there. So many people stopped to ask questions, pose for photos. My sons were troopers through it all. One of our Olympic speed skaters stopped us to chat for a moment and allowed my sons to hold his medal. The awe in their eyes at this moment was incredible. We were allowed into a special VIP area to watch some of the celebration and the lighting of a cauldron. The crowd was huge, so we were grateful for that opportunity as we wouldn't have been able to see anything without it. The spirit of the Olympics was definitely alive and well that night. The love, spirit, pride and happiness could be felt all around. A magical way to cap an inspiring, amazing and surreal day.
Just want to say how amazing the torch relay team is. Everyone I met and interacted with was so upbeat and positive. The fact that they manage to run this show not just on time, but ahead of schedule completely baffles me! Hats off to them. What a fun & talented crew they have put together. One day I hope they too are able to share their stories. I know I for one would love to hear them!
Proud! Go Canada Go!

Photo Credits: @Ubermoogle and Kristy

Thank you so much Erin for sharing your story with us.


  1. So glad you had Erin's story on the blog! She is such an amazing woman and such an inspiration!

  2. Thank you Kate and Travis. I am so glad I had her on as well. She was able to provide an insight that I was not privy too and I am grateful she could share that with my readers. For those of you who know her personally I'm sure this was a very proud moment for all of you. Congratulations Erin on inspiring people everywhere.

  3. Erin,

    Wow, what a great guest blog. I love that you shared the entire journey from the 88 Olympics, to the application to be a torch bearer all the way to your thoughts & emotions pre/during/post the torch relay!

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a indepth view into your experience.