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Thread: Michigan torchbearers embody Olympics

  1. #1
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    Michigan torchbearers embody Olympics

    Michigan torchbearers embody Olympics
    Like the flame they carry, relay runners endure

    By Michael H. Hodges / The Detroit News

    Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

    Jeanne Gonyer, above, a Plymouth resident who battles lupus, will carry the Olympic torch.

    Alan Lessig / The Detroit News

    Travar Pettway of Ann Arbor will carry the Olympic flame in a wheelchair he's used since he was paralyzed by a gunshot in 1995. "I'm just so happy ... to be a part of it all," says the Eastern Michigan University student.

    John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

    Detroit lawyer and gay activist Rudy Serra will be among those carrying the torch Sunday.

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    ANN ARBOR -- Seven years ago, Travar Pettway was in a car that accidentally got caught in a deadly cross-fire on Detroit's west side. In an instant, he was paralyzed from the neck down after one bullet pierced the teen-ager's spinal column. "I remember it well," Pettway, 24, says of that ugly day, "at least until I blacked out."
    That might have stopped some people in their tracks, but not Pettway. On Sunday -- to the cheers of crowds, including some of his nurses -- Pettway will carry the Olympic torch partway down Woodward Avenue in the motorized wheelchair he operates with his chin. "I'm just so happy and proud to be a part of it all," says the Eastern Michigan University student who's majoring in American history to one day become a lawyer. "I don't know why they picked me," while shaking his head and flashing his easy smile.
    Almost anyone else could surely tell him. Like all 11,500 torchbearers in 46 states, Pettway was chosen for his capacity to inspire. Taken together, the 80-plus Michigan torchbearers who will participate Sunday and Monday as the torch winds through Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor form a stirring American portrait, whether they've overcome daunting personal challenges or devoted their lives to bettering their communities.
    Pettway, like all the others, will carry the flame two-tenths of a mile, before igniting the next torch in a relay that started on Dec. 4 in Atlanta and concludes Feb. 8 in Salt Lake City.
    For his part, Pettway, who breathes with the help of a ventilator, not only maintains a full academic load at EMU, but he sits on the board of the Model Spinal Cord Program, Ann Arbor's Center for Independent Living, and the Trails Edge Ventilator Camp, a summer retreat for kids who've lost the ability to breathe on their own.
    He also volunteers there as a peer counselor.
    Still a little astonished that fellow board members at the Center for Independent Living nominated him to carry the torch, Pettway, a round-faced fellow with a clucking laugh, shrugs off the accomplishments of the past seven years.
    "People have just pushed me," he says. "My mom pushed me, always telling me I can do things. And my nurses -- without them, I wouldn't be able to do anything."
    This is only the fifth time the torch relay has been run in America. The first was in 1960 for the Squaw Valley winter games. Official sponsors Chevrolet and Coca-Cola selected torchbearers out of 50,000 nominations in conjunction with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
    The flame itself runs on a butane and propane mixture. It burns about 1 foot high and is designed not to go out in high winds. Torchbearers can actually buy their torch for $335.
    Royal Oaker Mary O'Connor, a Chevrolet spokeswoman, is traveling with the torch all 68 days of the relay. Speaking by cell phone from Washington, D.C., O'Connor says the crowds, waving flags and chanting "U.S.A.," have been "just unbelievably phenomenal -- more than we ever could have imagined," which she attributes to the patriotic outpouring that followed September's calamities.
    Runners carry the 3-pound torch about 12 hours a day, but don't actually cover every inch of the 13,500 miles the torch travels.
    To expedite its journey from city to city, the flame-- which is never extinguished -- often travels at night in a specially designed Chevrolet Avalanche or is kept in a miner's lantern when it boards an airplane or the crew checks into a hotel.
    Wheelchairs, planes and feet are not the only methods of transportation. In some parts of the country, the flame also will make tracks by dog sled and horse-drawn sleigh.
    For its Michigan leg, the flame will fly into Lansing from Wisconsin early Sunday morning. Then it will go to Flint and convoy down to Royal Oak where local runners begin.
    When Detroit attorney Rudy Serra got his Olympic-torch packet in the mail, he initially thought it was a joke. "So I tossed it aside," he says.
    Finally realizing it was for real -- a friend nominated him for his work on behalf of gay rights, though didn't tell him -- Serra found himself more excited than he might have anticipated.
    "I'm just honored and complimented beyond description," he says. "I just think this year the Olympics are going to be more symbolic than usual."
    Serra says both he and his nominator were "very up-front about my work for gay people," which has included sitting on the board of the Triangle Foundation, Michigan's most-influential gay advocacy group. Serra's also taken on many gay-rights cases in his practice, as well as serving as an Oakland County commissioner and a school board member.
    Serra once ran cross-country in high school, but the Olympic-torch committee "didn't pick me for my athletic skills," he says. "It's been a long time since I ran cross-country." Nonetheless, he's been training by running in place with a 5-pound weight in his hand.
    Jeanne Gonyer hasn't been training for the big event, noting that the two-tenths of a mile she'll cover on Nine Mile Road in Warren isn't really very far.
    As a little girl, she fantasized about being an Olympic gymnast. While life had other ideas, she's "truly thrilled in my own little way to be participating."
    Things look bright for Gonyer nowadays, but not so in the early '90s. Widowed at a young age in 1986, five years later the Plymouth resident was diagnosed with lupus, an immune disorder.
    "My kidneys were shutting down and I was really arthritic and anemic," says the 37-year-old who chairs the West Metro chapter of the Lupus Foundation. "But by the grace of God and good drugs" -- chemotherapy and steroids -- "I stand before you today." She suffers few of the symptoms that plagued her years ago.
    "I have been remarkably blessed," she says.
    Back in Ann Arbor, Pettway is still going round with his mother about whether he'll wear the Olympic knit cap, part of the official torchbearer uniform, that he maintains "makes me look like a Martian." Still, if his mother insists, he says, rolling his eyes, he'll probably go along with it.
    Anyhow, he's got more important matters on his mind. Both his wheelchair experts and the relay folks are building a mount to carry the torch.
    For his part, Pettway's only interested in one thing.
    "I just don't want to catch fire," he says, and laughs.

    You can reach Michael H. Hodges at (313) 222-6021 or

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  2. #2

    I'm also proud

    And honored to be a part of it. My 'leg' will be on Jan 30th.

    Looking forward to it.

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