I've been touched by the torch -- the Olympic Torch that is -- and all it represents as the symbol for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. And with "inspiration," as the theme of this year's event, what better way to embrace that than with a few of San Diego's own inspiring "super seniors" who did a superb job as official torchbearers for the trek through our town.
The 46-state, 13,500-mile journey began in Atlanta, Georgia with boxing legend Muhammed Ali doing the initial lighting. The Torch was then carried by 11,500 specially selected individuals (60 San Diegans) whose everyday lives are an inspiration to others, and who certainly embrace the scripted, "Light the Fire Within" motto that is etched on this symbolic piece of American patriotism.
"I'm still on a high from it," said Jean Wright-Elson, 72, one of the torchbearers. "It was the thrill of a lifetime and I just feel so proud and fortunate to have been part of it. And everyone who came to see it was equally excited -- they wanted to touch it, take pictures with us--it's like a sacred relic that carries precious meaning to us all."
Certainly the feeling of American patriotism and spirit is at an all-time high since 9/11, so seeing the Torch carried through our city with flag-waving people lining the streets everywhere the tour went really was an awesome sight. But what was particularly moving to me was seeing the crowd reaction to these terrific seniors who proudly did their duty. They may not have run as fast as some of the others, but they held that torch as high as their pride!
"That's awesome!" said one anonymous bystander as 87-year-young Jim Vernetti made his way through the huge crowd at Coronado's Spreckles Park. "Look at her, how great is that?" said another as Oceanside's Sarah Thorndike, 93, weaved her way through the cheers at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. And truly a special sentimental moment occurred at Horton Plaza when Jean Wright-Elson passed the Torch to her surrogate daughter, Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder, 54, who nominated Jean with such an emotionally moving letter that she was asked by the committee to receive the Torch from Jean to represent the meaningful intergenerational- friendship bond that brought many onlookers to tears.
"It was an emotional moment," Jean said. "We told each other we wouldn't cry, but the tears welled up as soon as we saw each other and as I passed it on to her and said,'I pass the flame of love and peace to you,' the tears were streaming down our faces. Happy tears indeed, and a most extraordinary moment."
Each of the torchbearers were nominated by family, friends, and/or people in the community for living their lives as an inspiring example to others. These aren't people who you will generally read about in newspapers or magazines, they are people who have made a big difference in their own quiet way -- leading by example.
For 64 years, Dr. Jim Vernetti has been an active member of the Coronado community. He brought Little League and Pony League Baseball to the town, initiated the "All American Flag City," campaign to encourage fellow Coronado-ians to fly their flags which resulted in a City Council proclamation, was the drive chairman for construction of the Coronado Hospital, and he also established the Thousand Smile Foundation which performs surgeries on children in Mexico with facial deformities.
"I've lived the true American dream," Jim said. And with immigrant parents from Italy who lived relatively short lives (his Mom died at 63 and his Dad at 69), he believes he's been very fortunate to contribute in making a better life for others.
But it hasn't all been easy for Jim. Of course he's not one who's likely to sit back and just let things happen, he takes action. Three years ago he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and knowing first-hand the trauma cancer can create (having lost several loved ones to various forms of cancer), Jim got an appointment with the prestigious Dr. Andrew Weil at his Arizona clinic and turned his immune system around through diet, exercise, vitamins and antioxidants. Today Jim is a pillar of good health as he bikes 12 miles, lifts weights and does push-ups in his two-hour daily work-out ritual.
"A positive attitude leads to good healing -- so I'm healthy and happy," Jim said.
For Sarah Thorndike, patience is a virtue as it only took 80 years for her to get back involved with the Olympics. At age 13, Sarah qualified for the Games in the 440 relay but never got to lace up her shoes as one of her teammates took ill and the team was disqualified.
"My Mom was considered one of the best female athletes in the state of Maryland," said daughter Polly Schmutz. "But she's been more than just an inspiration, she's a role model to us all."
The family letter writing campaign was conducted by Sarah's three daughters, eight grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. And although it may seem like it would be a slam-dunk, the group honestly never thought they really had a chance. So yes, you can be assured, they were all there in their matching sweatshirts, waving flags, snapping pictures, shooting video, and cheering for Sarah.
"I'm so proud of my family and so blessed to be a part of all this," Sarah shared after her run. "I don't know how I'll ever top this, but having a loving family nominate me and all be here too, makes this a most memorable day. Sure, I've got my problems but I choose to focus on the positive in life and not worry about the other things. It's easier that way and a lot more fun!"
And speaking of fun, Jean Wright-Elson has certainly been a positive influence in Susan Gregg-Schroeder's life. "Jean taught me how to play and celebrate life. She's a remarkable example of someone growing older and carrying that spirit," Susan said.
Jean indeed knows how to love life, having fulfilled a life-long dream of snorkling the Great Barrier Reef for her 70th birthday and tandem hang-gliding Torrey Pines for her 72nd. But it hasn't been all fun and games for Jean and it is that life-wisdom that enabled her to connect with and help Susan through perhaps her darkest time.
"Jean showed me the light, literally," Susan shared. "We met through our church where I was a pastor and Jean was our parish nurse. Over the eight years we spent together we developed a special bond--one that enabled me to reveal my biggest secret -- that I suffered from depression," Susan remembered.
Jean helped Susan work through her condition by being a friend and a mentor. They both say it was a life-changing experience and one they will always cherish with the proud memory of carrying the Olympic Torch together.
For something so good to come from countless life challenges should inspire us all to keep the fire burning. Anything worthwhile in life always takes effort. May the fire be with you, too!
Torchbearers Light the Fire!
What's Age Got To Do With It?