by Terry Birdsall
photography by Liz Lucsko
Achievements, inspiration and motivation . . . All are elements honoring the 11,500 torchbearers who embodied the Olympic spirit dedicated to empower America. The 65-day relay for the XIX 2002 Olympic games started Dec. 4, 2001, in Atlanta, Ga., and traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah for Opening Ceremonies Feb. 8, 2002. The flame traversed more than 13,500 miles and passed through 46 states. John Chovan, 60, seventh grade world history teacher at Ramona Middle School and resident of La Verne, had the honor of carrying the torch in the relay.
“As I got out of the shuttle to carry the torch for my two-tenth of a mile, I quickly thought of a situation which occurred on Wednesday in my classroom,” explains John. “A student had just received a graded activity I returned to him. He was talking with another student when I overheard him say, ‘Good, better, best, never will I rest, until my good is my better, and my better is my best.”‘ That is a motto John has posted in his classroom.
“As a runner, I knew I had to give my best, so instead of jogging or walking or strolling, I ran in order to show my best effort,” he says. Infused with vigor, his aged body suddenly regained the strength of his youth as the crisp cool air and sunshine embraced his face. “I was very proud to see that he was going fast . . . he said he was going to take it easy, but I knew that the runner in him would not let him go slow,” says his son, John Chovan Jr., 25.
When the flame passed to John Sr., a 5’11” tall, thin man with salt and pepper colored hair, he recalls, “I could hear the voices of my family, of boys and girls, men and women, cheering me on. I proudly carried the flame onward and closer to its final destination.”
John Jr. nominated his father to be a torchbearer when he saw the Chevrolet promotion on the Internet. He knew his father always wanted to be a runner in the Olympics. “It’s cool; he finally got to do something that’s all about him,” John Jr. says. “I remember him taking me to see the torch pass in 1984 and how it was cold, but he made me go anyway.” He was 7 years old when the flame was carried down Arrow Highway, close to their home.
In his nomination letter, John talked about his father’s character and contributions as a seventh grade history teacher and as a former Marine. He told how his father’s hard work and love of the United States gave many students a unique opportunity to visit their nation’s capitol in an annual eighth grade Washington D.C. tour. He shared how his father had always dreamed of running in the Olympics. “If he would be a torchbearer, his dream would be fulfilled,” John Jr., wrote.
On Jan.19, 2002, John Sr.’s dream did come true when he carried the Olympic torch for part of a mile through the city of San Anselmo, a suburb in the San Francisco Bay area. His wife Doris, and their three children, John Jr., Michael, 20, and Rachel, 18, were all there to share the moment with him. “It’s been a real experience,” John says. “Olympic dreams do come true; you don’t have to be an athlete.”
Chevrolet, the major sponsor, decides where the torchbearers will run. Nominees are told they will carry the torch from anywhere within a 200 mile radius of their home. All lodging, food, rental cars and flights are paid for by the runner. If the runner cannot afford it, the route is reassigned to the next person on the list. John says this is done to establish goodwill. “It brings people from different communities together to share their experiences.” According to John, Chevrolet and Coca-Cola sponsored three different selection programs to choose Olympic Torchbearers based on the theme of “Inspire.” Out of 210,000 nominations, 11,500 people were selected.
The journey began when John received a surprise letter in October from Chevrolet congratulating him for being selected as a potential torchbearer for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Torch Relay. “When he opened that letter, the look of joy on his face was similar to the look of joy when a father sees his baby being born,” his wife, Doris explains. “He had the same look when he stepped off the bus the day of the relay.”
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I said to my wife, ‘Honey would you read this for me . . . am I reading this right?'” His wife said, “Yes, you have been nominated to carry a torch for the Olympics.”
John was filling out the forms when his son John Jr. came home. He asked him, “Do you know anything about this?” At first he said, “No,” but his father could tell from his expression that he knew. Finally, his son confessed and told him that he did not want to say anything until he got a reply. John Jr. had told his mother about the nomination and asked her to keep it a secret. “Johnny knew this was something his dad would want to do,” Doris says. John Jr. told his mother, “You know mom I am very proud of lots of things I’ve done in my life, but I’m most proud of what I did for dad.”
“Ever since I was a little boy, I always liked to run,” John explains. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in a rural-forest area. He was a paper carrier for 10 years and usually ran the route. “I remember as a young boy, early in the morning trudging through the snow, delivering papers and seeing two-foot long icicles.”
Ironically, the torch he carried for the Olympics is shaped like a mountain icicle, with a polished silver point to represent the “present” and “future” shiny and new, a reflection of the technology age. Connected to the polished silver is an antique-looking dull blue-gray part that characterizes the past. Together they represent water and ice, and the past heritage of the United States. The carrier holds the torch where these two points meet to symbolize the bridging of the past, present and future. The crown is special because each is individually hand-blown in Croatia to portray the uniqueness of each individual torchbearer; no two will ever be alike. A copper band inside the flame represents Utah’s rich history of copper mining and the last vestiges of the Old West. The housing is built to withstand temperatures of 40 degrees below zero as well as to stay lit in the rain. Propane and propylene are combined to ignite a 14-inch flame symbolic of the athlete’s competitiveness. Engraved in the polished part is the theme of the XIX Olympics, “Light the Fire Within,” which represents the passion, dedication and determination of the athletes.
The 2002 torch and the 1996 torch were both designed by Sam Showden, professor of technology in Georgia. Torches are sold to raise funds for future games. John chose to purchase his torch for $325 and displays it prominently in a plexi-glass case in his living room.
“I’ve always had a dream of running in the Olympics,” he says. In the summer of 1975, John traveled with his wife to Greece to see where the sacred flame was kindled. Once there, he ran where the great Olympians of past had run. The torch was first ignited in Olympia, Greece, in 2400 B.C.
He described the historical re-enactment of how the flame for the XIX Olympic games started from the original location in Greece with dry timber ignited from the sun with a magnifying glow. It was placed in a type of caldron and carried to Athens; then, a charter plane was used to fly it to the last site in Atlanta, Ga. This “mother flame” is carefully watched over throughout the duration of the games. Sister flames are lit from the mother flame to deliver to the different locations of the relay runners. The symbolic method of the massive torch relay is done to bring harmony to the nation, and to encourage and foster the unity of peace among athletes, dignitaries and people who visit the games to build friendships. “It binds our nation together for peace, goodwill and unity,” John says. “It was a privilege and honor to carry it.”
“On a personal level, the Olympic flame reminds me of the “Light of the World” that I carry in my heart. This light makes life worth living and gives me personal peace and joy,” John declares. “During these trying times in our country, the Olympics give the world an opportunity to come together in peace for a common goal of brotherhood and good sportsmanship.”
John always had aspirations of running in the Olympic Marathon, but due to sports injuries had to put aside that dream. “I won my first ribbon in fifth grade running the 25-yard dash line,” John says. “I took third place.” He also ran track and cross-country teams in high school and college. “I never had speed but always had the endurance. I would always come out in the top five or eight.” One of his coaches told him that he would make a good marathon runner. John served in the Marine Corps from 1964-1968 and was in Vietnam 1966-1967. During his service, he was part of the Air Sea Rescue at China Beach. “We would help train pilots how to get out of their chutes once they hit the water,” he explains. As a Marine, he entered the intramural program and won the second place trophy for participating in the pentathlon, an athletic contest comprised of five different track and field events. John ended his running career when he stepped in a hole at Ramona Middle School, hurting his knee. “Now I run for very very short distances. When you are young, you don’t let your injuries heal properly,” he admits.
John still enjoys the fulfillment of his Olympic dream and willingly shares it with others. “I was on an adrenaline high until early February because after I finished running for the Olympics, the administration at my school suggested I run around the track carrying the torch [on the official day of the Olympic opening day ceremonies].”
In anxious anticipation, 1,400 Ramona Middle School students sat tranquilly in the stands at the track waiting to see the moment of a lifetime. Other students excitedly took their place in line to participate in what would become a memorable event. Then-it happened. John Chovan appeared running on the track carrying the Olympic torch, followed by a pack of five-minute junior high milers holding American flags. It was so quiet, “You could hear a pin drop,” Ed Jones, president of the Board said to John after the ceremony. “Doing this was just as exciting as carrying the torch,” John says. “I was so impressed with how attentive the kids were.” He decided to do the ceremonial lap after talking with Brad Smith, chairman of the physical education department. Smith told him that for many of these boys and girls this is the only recognition they will get. “This made a big impact on me,” he says. One of his wife’s former kindergarten students was able to run with John during the ceremonial lap. “It really showed the connectedness,” Doris says. John participated in five different assemblies at Oak Mesa Elementary School, where his wife works as a kindergarten teacher, in order to share his experience with the students. He also visited Oswalt Elementary School in Walnut where his nephew, Tyler Salverda is employed. “The kids would line up and have a chance to hold on to the torch,” he says. “As a teacher, it reminds me, I have the light to ignite the fire in my students.”
“What really got to me was how excited the little 5-year-olds were about it,” Doris says. “For them it really made something that was noteworthy in the news, real to them.” After John visited the school, Doris gave her students a homework assignment about famous Americans. One little girl chose to do the assignment about John. “It really showed the impact his visit had on them.” John also shared the torch with senior citizens in his neighborhood. He was commended and congratulated by La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff at a City Council meeting in February for his inspiring role in the community. He was also honored at a school board meeting. “It’s been awesome,” he says.
Looking back on that glorious day when he carried the torch, John remembers how exciting it was to meet the other torchbearers and hear about their nomination stories, especially the two torchbearers he ran with during the relay. He thought it was appropriate that the torch would pass from a student to a teacher to a professional. Chismo, an eighth grade student from Hacienda Heights was nominated by his mother because, “He is a good boy,” she said. The other runner, Liz, a professional from Atlanta, Ga., found out three days before the relay that she would substitute for an individual who was involved in a court trial.
“As the 10 of us were together all dressed in the Olympic Torchbearer Uniform and sharing our stories, I realized that there was no distinction of super athletes, but a common denominator of individuals from all walks of life across America, ethnic groups, the young and elderly, student or professional, representing our country and ‘lighting the fire within.'” He adds, “In my mind, I thought of the wonderful opportunity that was given to me by my son, to fulfill a dream. Yes, dreams do come true if one perseveres no matter what the circumstances.
At the closing ceremonies, as they were extinguishing the flame, John says jokingly, “The last flicker came from my torch.” He laughs. “I bet all the torch bearers said that.”