Touched by the Torch

Alaska torchbearers honored by chance to carry the Olympic flame

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2002

Marian Koelsch of Juneau has run marathons, but those 26.2-mile races didn't compare with her short 0.2-mile jaunt Thursday.

Koelsch was the last of 51 torchbearers to carry the Olympic flame as it made its way through the streets of Juneau. She had the honor of bringing the Olympic torch into Centennial Hall for a citywide celebration of the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay.

After completing her short run through the snowy streets, Koelsch entered a side door of Centennial Hall and carried the torch onto the stage set up in the main ballroom, where a standing-room-only crowd of about 3,000 people waited to see the Olympic flame make its first appearance ever in Alaska.

"This is awesome," Koelsch said. "It's still the same nerves, though."

Koelsch said she replaced her daughter, Amber, on the torch relay roster after Amber couldn't leave New York.

"I'll probably give her some of the clothes, but I'm keeping this," Marian Koelsch said as she tightened her grip on her torch. "She'll probably get it eventually, though."

The Olympic Torch Relay started early Thursday morning at the Juneau Airport, kicking off a three-hour procession through Juneau's streets. Crowds that ranged to several hundred people in some areas waited as support vehicles, snow plows, police cars and an ambulance led the torchbearers through the three-part course.

"I feel like a professional athlete," said Jerry John of Toksook Bay, who modeled his white-and-blue torchbearers' uniform for people and let others hold his torch while he signed a few autographs. "I feel like (basketball star Michael) Jordan."

Juneau torchbearer Ray Vidic said he was left speechless after carrying the torch in front of Riverbend Elementary School, where his daughter Taylor attends second grade. About 500 students lined the streets as Vidic went by and several members of Vidic's Rotary Club cheering him on. Several students held flags they'd made and others held their own Olympic torches. A couple of bald eagles perched in a tree overhead as Vidic passed the flame on to Carolyn Lee Crusey of Wasilla, who was born in Juneau.

"How do you describe all this?" Vidic asked. "Words can't describe all 500 students out here. Words can't describe it. What I see is a lot of special effort. The teachers have been educating the students about the torch so they knew it was special."

Brenda Weaver, who teaches kindergarten and first grade at Riverbend, said she assigned her class the homework of making a flag from any country. Carolyn Kelley's first-grade class made Olympic torches, while Mary Bedore's second-grade class made flags with the five Olympic rings.

"I have a very multi-cultural class," Weaver said. "I've been going over with them about the Olympics being a friendly competition and a way to build friendships around the world. The students also got a chance to talk with their parents to learn about where their families come from."

One of the relay observers was Betty Tompkins of Juneau, whose son Joe Tompkins will compete as an alpine skier in the 2002 Winter Paralympics in March in Salt Lake City. At Centennial Hall, hundreds of residents signed a banner that will be sent to Tompkins. There were other banners honoring Tompkins and the 10 Alaska Olympians who will compete for Team USA in the Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

"I just wish he could have been here," Betty Tompkins said of her son, who has been training in Utah and Colorado. "It's great that it's up here, and it's very special now that Joe's involved."

Former Juneau resident Mike Miller, who recently moved to Beaverton, Ore., to be closer to his doctors while he fights prostate cancer, said he enjoyed being asked to return to participate in the relay.

"It was very exhilarating," said Miller, who received the flame in front of the Capitol. "It was super to come back and have all these people show their love."

The relay leg that drew the biggest crowd took Juneau's Ethel Lund across the downtown harbor in a Tlingit canoe paddled by nine members of the Tlingit Warriors canoe team and two members of the SEARHC canoe team. The Tlingit dance group Yun Shu Ka sang an exit song as the canoe started its leg at the Goldbelt Dock and was transported to another dock where members performed an entrance song as Lund arrived and passed the flame on. Spectators were lined dozens deep to watch the special relay leg.

"It (the water) was smooth as glass. It was beautiful," Lund said. "These guys are racers, so the big challenge was getting them to slow down. The singing and dancing was very appropriate."

Juneau's Tracy Forst had a slight problem when the small bus carrying torchbearers tried to drop her off for her relay leg near the Governor's Mansion. When Forst tried to hop out of the van to get into position, the van's door stuck and it took her a few minutes to get out. Then, once out of the van, she had to deal with the Ninth Street hill.

"I had the hill, but the traction wasn't too bad," said Forst, whose husband Eric Forst was the first torchbearer in the relay. "I didn't really think about it (sliding down the hill). This was a huge honor."

While most of the torchbearers were from Alaska, a few from the Lower 48 got to run in Juneau. One was Patrick Byrne of Salt Lake City, Utah, a three-time cancer survivor who said he visited Juneau 24 years ago when he hitchhiked to Alaska at age 16 .

"They offered me a choice of Hollywood or Juneau," Byrne said. "I had been up here before, and there's a different kind of people up here."

Charles Bingham can be reached at

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