Joining Paxton and Olympic flame in Greece is memorable experience
Posted: Friday August 13, 2004 12:46PM; Updated: Friday August 13, 2004 2:26PM
The torch will enter the Olympic stadium later today, its flame awash in historia. Like many Greek words that have endured the ages, historia has more rich layers of meaning than its translation hints. It encompasses both an archia historia (ancient lore) and prospiki historia (personal adventures). One is linked to the other. Traveling through Western Greece to carry the torch in the village of Amfilochia, Suzie Paxton, a 1996 Olympian in fencing, and I are finding a little of both. It is an adventure, indeed.
Our local driver, Nikos, is, we believe, a direct descendent of the legendary chariot racer Evelos Kneivelopoulos. On the five-hour drive from Athens, we frequently visit the lane of oncoming traffic, zigging when we hope others are zagging. A nap in the back seat helps, as vehicular ignorance is always encouraged in the face of chicken-slaloming. The ride is swift until we hit a snarl, then a stall, then a wall of cars, delayed by the detour of torch support vehicles. "I don't know if we'll get there on time," Nikos says. "Everybody wants to see the torch." I fidget. "We'll be OK," says Suzie, the cool one for now. We crawl, sneak in and out of holes in traffic and arrive at a secondary school that serves as a meeting place for torchbearers who will enter a transport bus. We are not late. We are in Greece.
Amfilochia is a seaport village, born of necessity before most of the country expanded, a pre-ancient, if you will. Its hills form lumps and irregular crevices that only grudgingly make room for houses. At the base of a hill overlooking Amvrakikos Bay, townspeople form an eager procession to the eorti (happy feast) the way their ancestors might have awaited seaborne cargo by the local agora. To our right, Daphnean nymphs dance on a platform next to camcorder-toting hipsters in an almanac of ages apropos to Greece. Against the backdrop of graying skies, we see almost every face. A local runner, also a torchbearer, tells us the town holds 6,000 inhabitants, but there are many more visitors here to see the flame, if only for seconds. It is a panighiri, a man says, a time so special that it compels the entire village to celebrations and fetes the achievements that occasion them. Shop owners ascend their stoops. Café seats empty. Kids climb on shoulders. "Have you ever seen anything like this?" Suzie asks.
My company could not be better suited for the honor. Paxton took up fencing as a lark, something to do as a high school student during soccer's off-season in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She made her first national team in foil after the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, when, she says, "nobody would have picked me for the '96 team." She progressed, thanks to coaches Wes Glon and Francisco Martin who, she says, "believed in me more than I did." Then in 1995, she nearly lost her life to a burst appendix. Doctors carefully avoided muscles with their incisions so she could fence as soon as possible, on the chance she could get to the Olympics a year later.
Instead of accompanying the U.S. team to the Pan-Am Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina that year, she healed and trained in Germany, came back with newfound confidence and made the Olympic team in 1996. Though the U.S. squad didn't reach the podium at the Atlanta Games, she won the first U.S. gold medal at a World Cup, taking first at a meet in Cuba. The result stunned organizers who took half an hour to find a tape of the U.S. national anthem they didn't expect they would need. That isn't a problem these days, when the U.S. is sending perhaps its greatest fencing team to an Olympics. "Even though I never won an Olympic medal, I feel I contributed to something bigger," she says.
Since then, she has supported her underappreciated sport as a producer, coach, official and board member, mostly as a volunteer. She is in Athens doing sleep-free double-duty as a U.S. Olympic Committee media liaison and an NBC color commentator for fencing. Why the overload? "There is a narrow window for people to appreciate fencing," she says, "and I want to do so right by my sport." So the anticipation on her face as her moment nears has been well-earned.
In the torchbearer transport bus, we proceed along an open road away from the town center and towards the mountains. The runners pass: 100, 101, 102. Suzie is next. She leans forward in her chair, taking in what she is about to be a part of. "It's all like a great chain," she says, "connecting . . ." Connecting what? Generations, villages and cultures. She is the only American running today, but now she belongs to the village. It is raining, but the relay legs are just 300 meters long, less than a lap around a track stadium and barely long enough to get wet or find jogging rhythm. Go slow, Suzie has heard; it will end too soon. But moderation is hopeless. She takes the flame from a woman and she kisses her on the cheek and she isn't walking or running, so much as skipping. A man yells "floga," a word meaning inner flame.
The idea of the torch relay is not ancient. It began in 1936. But the ideal it celebrates -- unifying the world with the passing of a flame lit by the sun's rays in Olympia -- is an ode to the ancient Olympics, when wars stopped for games. This year, for the first time, the relay has spanned six continents, bridged by a flame and an ideal that can make a cynic reconsider.
Suzie's successor arrives quickly. She lowers her torch to his and sends him off. A policeman takes her torch to extinguish its flame. Suzie is beaming and processing. The charm of the brief torch run, like a sip of great wine, is its aftertaste, the way it plays over in your mind differently each time you recall it. "As an American in Greece it was even more significant because I was uniting with them," she says. "In a beautiful countryside, across the seas, it was too much to take in. And then it was over just like that. We all have our worlds and keep such busy lives, but to be a tiny link of something that went all around the world, it's an amazing honor to be a part of it."
As we climb the hill back to the school, several children, spotting Suzie's uniform, salute her from a balcony with calls of axia. "It's a wonderful word, axia," Nikos tells us. "It is a recognition of your skills, your efforts, your character, your personality. It means you have the right stuff. You will never forget this word, axia."
She nods, looks up at the mountains, then down at the torch and shakes her head. "So cool I was a part of this," she says. With an axia befitting her Olympic historia, she is again a part of something much bigger.