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I feel like a fraud. Here on the torchbearer shuttle, minutes before my Olympic torch run down Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, we're going around the bus, telling our stories. No surprise, I'm surrounded by heroes. To my left are the cancer survivors and Mother Teresa-types working with AIDS victims overseas. To my right, Venus and Serena Williams.
What am I doing here, exactly? I'm no hero. I'm no athlete. I am, however, completely stressing.
"Once you are carrying your torch, remember: You are the only person on the planet with that responsibility," says our shuttle guide, who'll follow the torch for 65 days. "The flame is the great equalizer." Great equalizer? Cool, so maybe I won't seize up during the two-tenths of a mile. Riiiight. My asthmatic lungs are going to burst. My legs will collapse beneath me. And my flame will go out. Poetic punishment for a fraud.
"I'm Serena Williams, self-employed," says Serena to appreciative laughter. She offers a slight smile, sinking back in her seat, coolly observing everyone else. I remember the PR woman's words: "Serena's in a foul mood." I also hang back, trying to absorb every detail. Must report, I think. Then I realize, I can't take notes. Shuttle rules: no personal effects.
Meanwhile, the shuttle guide tells us stories. "I remember one torchbearer for the Atlanta Games who survived a motorcycle accident," she says. "He was in a coma for months. He shouldn't have lived, never mind walked. We expected him to ride a wheelchair. Instead, he has a walker. 'Look!' he tells us." She mimes him jerking the walker up an inch. Then her feet shuffle almost imperceptibly forward. "On the walkie-talkie, they told us, 'Somebody's got to cut this guy's segment short.' We said, "Can't do it, that man's family is waiting for him at the end.' And when he gets there forty-five minutes later, his parents and friends are hugging, cheering and crying."
As we stop curbside, I remind the driver to cue the Olympic theme music, hoping the others will be as moved as Jeff Gordon was by those orchestral swells. Before I can truly panic, I find myself out there on the street, clutching my torch. The torchbearer before me slows to a standstill, and I suddenly forget the circus bow I planned to do. I also forget that I'm an interloper. Once my torch is lit, my only instinct is to run.
I spot my mom watching from the sidewalk. My mother never runs. Never has. And a battery of illnesses -- hypoglycemia, breast cancer (she's a survivor too), high blood pressure, heart attacks -- has her scared to do anything but walk. But as I pass by with that flame, and my dad starts running with his camcorder, my mom sprints. She's sprinting! Someone on a motorcycle yells, "Run, mama, run!" Her unsure feet slap the sidewalk, legs churning in the crazed, exhilirated sprint of a kid chasing an ice cream truck. She stops, gasping after several blocks, her hair spiked like a faux shampoo mohawk, her eyes wild with shock, her cheeks shining with sweat -- a disheveled manifestation of maternal love.
Then it's over. Another shuttle scoops me up, and I wait for the others to return. A couple minutes later, Serena boards the shuttle, breathless from her run up a drawbridge. "I'm so glad I decided to do this," she says, her face soft with wonder. There hadn't been much of a crowd, but Serena certainly hadn't lacked for joyous noise, what with Venus, Richard and Oracene all hollering and waving at each other as Serena lit her sister's torch. "It was terrible when it was over," Serena says, shaking her head. "I ran it too fast."
Had Serena understood the enormity of the occasion, she might have crawled instead. The man with the walker had gotten 45 minutes with the Olympic flame; for all Serena's exquisite athleticism, she'd gotten mere seconds. But even in that short time, Serena felt that connection with something larger -- we all did. Holding that flame aloft stirred up that gooey mess in our guts, as we became a part of a continuum linking the Greek gods to Jim Thorpe to Wilma Rudolph to Muhammed Ali to us. And even if just for a nanosecond, we were transformed.
As John, an ex-cop, clambers aboard, slapping everyone's hand as he rumbles down the aisle, Serena laughs helplessly, recognizing his breathless joy. "Team player!" she shouts, giggling.
My dad's camcorder work? Pure genius: about two seconds of me, and 10 minutes of pavement, perfectly capturing the chaotic rush as we all forgot to record the moment, and got swept up in it instead.
And you know, that flame never did go out.
Anne Marie Cruz is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail her at email@example.com.