A first-hand account of a once-in-a-lifetime experience
Read how Director of London 2012 Partnership Steve Girdler defied the doctors, beat the odds, and not only carried, but jogged with the Olympic Flame — despite being told he’d never run again.
It was some time ago that I found out I was to be honoured by being part of the Olympic Torch Relay, and with everything going on in my life, it was pushed to the back of my mind. May 30th came around suddenly and I barely remembered to grab my uniform as we headed out the door at 08:00 to travel to the north Midlands for my ‘moment to shine’.
I was scheduled to run my leg of the relay in the village of Haughton, a few miles west of Stafford. We made it in plenty of time and the golden liveried bus was waiting outside Hanley Park in Stoke-on-Trent, where the evening celebration was to take place.
There were 17 Torchbearers on the bus for the last section of the day. Our bus host told us about the torch, how to hold it, and the fact the design incorporated a mesh of 8,000 holes representing the 8,000 torchbearers. Then she said (as with all the other buses she had hosted) we could go round and tell each other our ‘personal best’ stories — having been the theme for the torchbearers. In typical British self-deprecating fashion there was a deafening silence. Eventually, a man who was the dad of one of the young Torchbearers spoke up. His son had severe autism and social and communication issues but was an example to many in his community of how to get involved in activities regardless of disability. We all cheered afterwards and the floodgates opened.
There were some heart-warming stories, including a mum running with her son who had cerebral palsy, a teenager who had a brain tumour but recovered and had set up a charity, and Imran Sherwani, who was in the gold medal winning men’s Team GB Hockey side in the 1988 Olympics. There was also Adele, who was the torch-bearer who would hand over to me. She had overcome ovarian cancer and set up a charity to raise money and awareness for the disease. She and I agreed that rather than just pass the flame we would hug as well.
We were soon driving out of Stoke and tracing the route of the relay. It was at this point that the enormity of what we were about to do finally sunk in. Conspicuous in our golden bus with 17 white uniformed passengers, we were easily spotted. There were hundreds of people outside pubs or standing on walls and they all jumped, cheered and waved when we passed. It was breathtaking but also slightly terrifying.
Adele was dropped off at the end of the village and we then drove to the centre of Haughton where I was dropped off with the torch. I don’t know if you ever had the same experience at school, but I remember forgetting my PE kit and having to do the lesson in my pants. This felt exactly the same. I felt exposed. I wanted some sort of shelter. But there I was in the middle of the street with everyone staring at me. The cheers eventually died down, almost as if they sensed my discomfort, and I was rescued by the sight of my family and friends on both sides of the road.
Soon the police motorcycles appeared, then the bright red Coco-Cola bus, followed by the Samsung blue bus with people hanging off it and cheering. Then jogging around the bend came Adele with the flame and torch held high. My torch was lit in a process known as the torch kiss and I embraced Adele as she headed back to the bus.
I had been told by my surgeon I must never run again because of the danger to my pelvis. I was determined that I wouldn’t just walk and had practiced what I called a fast shuffle. I apologised to my police runner that I was likely to be slow as I couldn’t run. As soon as I had the torch lit it was like a starting gun had gone off. In my mind I was going to shuffle but the excitement and adrenaline took over and before I knew it I was jogging with the torch in my left hand with my tight arm raised as high as it could go (not very) waving at everyone.
The jeers and flag waving of the crowds was incredible. The overwhelming emotion from everyone, me included, was joy. It was a celebration, a coming together of a community and a country. In some ways I felt almost bashful and embarrassed by the attention, but in reality it wasn’t for me. It was the torch and the flame they were cheering, something that would come through their village once in a generation, perhaps never again; and I was just the human face, someone to personify the symbol and return their waves and cheers. So much so I found myself whooping along with them. I never whoop. I ran past the pub with beer bellied cheering blokes with their half drunk pint glasses held high and asked them to save me a pint or two. There were old ladies sat in garden chairs waving flags, babies on their dad’s shoulders with serious bemused looks on their faces, and small flags in their tiny hands.
In the blink of an eye it was over. I got back on the coach and was joined by the other Torchbearers once they had finished their leg, and we waved at the cheering crowds as we passed through Stafford and Stoke
The penultimate runner was the dad with his autistic son. I could see them running with both hands holding the torch high. It was a fitting and emotional end to what was an extraordinary day. As I sat reflecting on the bus I received a text from my wife saying it was exactly seven months to the day and hour that I was undergoing the surgery following my accident that would ultimately save my life. Even more poignantly was the fact that the time I was running was when Karen was being told by the doctor that I may not make it through to the morning.
Seven months later, I was running with the Olympic Torch.