© Copyright 2020 by Sara Etgen-Baker
This is my account of conquering obesity and how that led to me one day carrying the Olympic torch as it made its way across the United States toward the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2001.
“Pick up the pace!” coaxed my husband.
“But I can’t!” I said, my heart pounding hard inside my chest. “I can’t go any faster!”
“Yes, you can! You’re not fat anymore.”
There it was, the f word and label that defined me for more almost 30 years. I was born chubby, unable to shed what Mother called my natural propensity for pudginess. I became a pleasingly plump, amenable little girl; a charmingly chunky teenager; and by the time I entered college, a spirited and stout young woman. Six years later I was an obese college graduate with a promising counseling career ahead of me—a career that failed to take off.
But I was blind to my own obesity, unaware that it was at the core of my unemployability until a potential employer shared his reason for not hiring me. “Your credentials are sound, but your level of obesity tells me you have emotional issues that will diminish your effectiveness as a counselor.”
His candor opened my eyes to a hard truth: I was addicted to food, having given control of my life over to it. With that realization came responsibility: I had to shed what no longer served me; confront my addiction; and prevent it and my obesity from overshadowing and defining me. Breaking my addiction was hard, requiring honest self-examination; altering my thinking patterns; and making different choices. I slowly modified my eating habits, eating only when I was physically hungry instead of eating when I was emotionally hungry.
Although I could barely walk down the stairs of my apartment building, I began walking to improve my mobility and awaken my all but atrophied body. Initially I could walk for just 15 minutes at a time, my arms and legs rubbing together; chafing; and then scabbing over. But each day I pushed myself walking five minutes longer than I did the day before until one day I walked for an hour and eventually two. For two years, I committed myself to healthy eating choices and maintained my walking regimen, slowly and painstakingly changing myself from being a robust, unhealthy 300-pound woman to a 130-pound healthy one. At that point, I traded my walking shoes for running shoes and became an avid runner.
My journey motivated my husband, who in March 2001 after seeing a commercial inviting Americans to nominate an ordinary person who inspires them to bring the Olympic flame to Salt Lake City, nominated me to be a Torchbearer. The odds of being selected were high (210,000:1), but I was no stranger to overwhelming odds and believed my story was the stuff that would inspire others and would strike a chord with the selection committee.
Running taught me the importance of training for a race, picturing myself running a race course, and crossing the finish line. So for months I ran through my neighborhood carrying a broken off broom handle with a three-pound weight on it in my right hand; feeling the weight of the torch; and waving at my neighbors pretending they were cheering bystanders. I printed a picture of a Torchbearer wearing the white uniform; replaced the face with a picture of mine; taped it to my refrigerator door; and every day visualized myself as a Torchbearer. Yes, I was in training—training to participate in an historic running event.
On September 26 while on my daily run through my neighborhood, an express package arrived. My hands trembled as I opened it and read:
“You’ve been selected as a potential support runner for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Torch Relay…A nationwide search was conducted for ordinary individuals who’ve inspired others to be both torchbearers and support runners. You’ve obviously touched those around you. Although all the torchbearer spots have been filled, you’re eligible to be a support runner. A support runner serves as “guardian of the flame” and accompanies torchbearers carrying the Olympic Flame along its journey…Please read the attached information and return the legal forms within seven days…Congratulations!”
Although I wouldn’t be wearing the white uniform and carrying the torch as I imagined, I wasn’t disappointed. My dream of participating in the torch relay was coming true! Given the odds, I was delighted to be a Support Runner and “Guardian of the Flame.” I completed the required physical; submitted the forms; and waited, knowing that the letter clearly stated I was a potential support runner. Months passed without any word, but I continued my training runs through the neighborhood. Finally on December 20, another package arrived containing my official blue Support Runner uniform along with instructions on my segment of the relay.
“Bill,” I ran inside the house screaming, “I’m officially a Support runner! We’re going to Santa Fe, New Mexico!”
For the ensuing weeks and despite winter’s bitter cold, I bundled up running every day through my neighborhood clutching my makeshift torch in my gloved hand. On January 12, my husband and I stood outside the Torch Relay collection point in Santa Fe, the cold hissing at the warmth of our bodies and licking at our faces. “One of today’s Torchbearers can’t run her segment,’’ announced the Relay organizer as she dropped folded pieces of paper into her hat. “One lucky Support Runner will become a Torchbearer. Select a number from this hat as it’s passed around.”
I removed my glove and reached into the hat, my numb hand trembling. I closed my eyes; stirred the contents; nabbed the first piece of paper that stuck to my fingers; and waited.
“Number 32! Who has Number 32?”
I opened my eyes and unfolded my piece of paper. “Me! Oh my God…me!”
I was whisked inside where I changed into a white Torchbearer uniform and boarded the shuttle bus with the Olympic theme song blaring over the loud speakers. The bus drove down streets lined with balloons and banners, filled with throngs of people waving American flags. At segment 32, I stepped off the bus and positioned myself to receive the flame. The cold air, alive with spirit and excitement, took my breath away. “Hold it tightly,” I thought, as the flame in the torch carried by the runner before me kissed my three-pound, icicle-shaped torch. A rush of emotion surged through my body; I turned around and ran down the street, just as I had envisioned and practiced all those months.
The very fabric of time and space unraveled; the world vanished; and I ran without my feet ever touching the ground. I waved and smiled as I floated past the bystanders; and for an instant I thought I saw Konstantinos Kondylis, the first modern-day Olympic Torch bearer, in the crowd. “The lampadedromia is not about you,” he murmured. “It’s about sharing the Olympic spirit and giving the flame of strength and inspiration in others.”
Like Konstantinos, I was an ordinary person participating an extraordinary running event—an event that had little to do with me. Yes, I was carrying the Torch; but more importantly I was carrying the Olympic spirit. I still run, inspired to live, work, and behave with the Olympic spirit in my heart and doing my part to strengthen and inspire others.
of us has a fire in our hearts for something. It’s our goal in
life to find it and keep it.” Mary Lou Retton, Olympic Gold