Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Ignited and extinguished... London 2012- How do I find the words?

I'd avidly followed the London 2012 Olympic Torch relay for it's 8000 mile journey. The past few months have felt like a blur, a timeline of events, emotion and experiences, mangled up like an amused cat playing with a ball of wool. I was gutted to have missed the majority of the penultimate week of the relay, as the flame arrived in the capital for the final few days of it's epic journey, but instead I was climbing Mont Blanc and doing something else I'd never have dreamed I'd be doing 18 months ago.
Never shall I forget when my heart pounded as I opened the email entitled 'Your London 2012 Olympic Torchbearer Nomination', nor the absolute explosion of utter elation when I read the beautiful words 'Congratulations Alex, we think you've got what it takes to be a London 2012 Olympic Torchbearer' and subsequently leapt that high off my chair I nearly brought down clumps of insulation from the ceiling along with the overwhelming realisation of what I was about to do. The initial anxieties myself and many others faced for 2 enduring months about our official confirmation are now laughable, but this meant a lot to us. I remember the goosebumps when I first saw the London 2012 Torch Relay preview advert shown on TV, shortly followed by watching the flame arrive in Lands End on the 19th of May, first carried by Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie. The torch was to travel in almost every form of transport possible known in the UK and to capture the imagination of the whole country, and beyond. Initially I was awestruck. Watching the flame on it's first juvenile day in the deep south of the country, the reception was already warming, in more ways than just the Cornish weather.

Crowds of people lined the streets, as I watched in amazement on the BBC Torch Cam. Soon it would be my turn. The atmosphere amongst us torchbearers changed, and one by one the page began to be filled with everyone's photo's and memories of their big day, we were promised and reassured that we were in for a treat. They weren't wrong. The press went wild for the relay, and I made several appearances in local newspapers and radio.

Earlier in the year, I'd been featured on massive Coca-Cola billboards across every major city in the UK alongside celebrity rapper Dizzee Rascal (who also went 'Bonkers' at the Opening Ceremony). Such a surreal experience, and thankfully friends kept the 'Sharpie' markers and obscene graffiti well away. I'd also had the experience of talking live on the BBC School Report at the BBC Studios in Manchester on the BBC North West tonight sofa, being interviewed about being a torchbearer by Roger Johnson. The chap who usually accompanied us for tea whilst we watched the news, was now sitting inches away from me. The same day I met Robbie Savage and the weather lady who usually told me whether I'd be running in the rain or shine every day, was now clipping a microphone onto my t-shirt. Somebody needed to get a whopping big Salmon and hit me to bring me back to Earth a little. A cracking day.

When I got an email a week later asking me to speak live on BBC Radio Merseyside I jumped at the chance. And once again I nailed the interview, with my nerves easing off further. From then on, I was invited for more radio interviews, booked up for primary school assemblies, and then had an interview for BBC North West Tonight. It really couldn't get much better, and I didn't care about my speech, although it took a few times to get it right. Considering my abysmal low self confidence just a couple of years later, this was such an amazing thing to happen to me. I was 'the torchbearer' in my local village, and it was fantastic. Shortly after the relay kicked off, I recieved my uniform. As I was on Day 11, I saw some of the earlier runners posting photo's of themselves in their Olympic Chav tracksuits, as I called them, but now I got the chance to proudly wear mine for the first time. Safe to say it was dirty even before the 29th of May. And as I counted the days until my 'moment to shine', increasingly excited by the news coverage and the signs everywhere: I really couldn't wait. 

I woke up on Tuesday the 29th of May like a not-so little kid at Christmas. I was in my uniform hours earlier eagerly waiting for the big moment. And as for the whole day, what an overwhelming, epic and truly awesome blur, a massive honour, a surreal and incomparable experience. I want to do it again- but I can't. Thousands of people clapping you and cheering your name... there really is no greater reward for the things I've overcome to get here. My job was done, I'd carried the Olympic flame safely and done myself proud. I could say more, but I simply don't need to. Words won't do the honour justice and I think my fellow Future Flames will agree. It's like a legal high. But for days after, as I tried to work out what the hell happened, there was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. My aunty passed away from a brain tumour 4 days before my big day. I was a complete cocktail of emotion, almost numb, and I know how devastated my family were that she hadn't made it to see me run. The best day of my life was in the same week as her funeral. It was incredibly unfortunate timing and I just wish she'd been there to see it. My grandad battled the same thing 19 years ago, sadly he too was beaten, but they were both with me that day- the sun was shining and everything went like clockwork. Gran said that Grandad would have been so proud and would have had a photo put up in the town hall! But the whole experience was a distraction to the family, which brought some relief. 

However, the aftermath was equally as magical. Never would we have guessed that we'd be almost famous. I have signed a dozen autographs, one as far away as the Philippines! I've posed for hundreds of photo's, featured in newspapers, been on radio again and TV, and my torch must have been held by at least 1500 people- in schools, care homes, fairs and in public. It's had a Barn Owl on top of it, been used in a pretend sword fight with the Roman guards who stood on the Old Dee Bridge as I brought the flame into Chester, it's started races and has raised hundreds for charity. It's been to London, Milton Keynes, Leeds and Sheffield and held by Marco Pierre White and Ben Heason. 

As well as spreading the joy and telling my story, I've built my confidence even more. I've told my story to over 1500 people at countless events, schools and care homes. I've filled with goosebumps whilst showing children videos of me carrying the torch, and then every hand in the room shooting up when you ask who wants to hold it first. And I'm so lucky to be able to spread the joy, even when the 'Are you selling it?' questions got tedious. But the relay had a journey to complete. And the chuffed feeling of pride when everyday you saw on the news that the flame had done something else extraordinary or been held by a celebrity, never ceased. There were heart-rendering moments throughout, like seeing extremely injured soldier Ben Parkinson carry the flame for 26 inspirational minutes, and the other brave people who carried the flame regardless of whether they could walk, see, hear or understand, really touched me. People who hadn't walked for many painful years, had their courage ignited by the flame, and they got up and walked the biggest 300m of their life. The journey never failed to amaze me or exceed anybody's expectations, it touched the hearts of millions. 

I was able to support friends throughout as they had supported me, sadly normally online but I do remember when in person I watched a friend Gloria run in Winslow, and the look of surprise on her face when me and Kim waited for her at her drop-off point holding a huge banner and waving our torches. We'd had our moments to shine, so now we were here to support her. As I ran alongside her taking pictures, lines of schoolkids waving flags and their home-made torches tapped my legs. I was excited to see the flame again that day, and it's no wonder the torch arriving in people's hometown has got everyone out whether rain, shine or monsoon, it really does build a cracking atmosphere. To see it from the crowds perspective was fantastic, as I knew exactly how it felt. I had a brief and slightly emotional reunion with Jack from the Coca-Cola team, the pleasant chap who'd calmed my nerves whilst my knees trembled at the side of the road just a month earlier. He recognised me and he gave me a free Coke, then had to shoot off. For some silly reason I decided to bring my torch with me- as the torch convoy had left, leaving lots of hyper children and smiling faces, all it took was one person to ask 'Is that a real torch?' and my torch came out of the bag, and would stay out for the next hour as I was swarmed for photo's. Mad. 

Our Future Flames facebook page increasingly filled up with photos and stories of everyone's big days, as the flame neared London. Whilst showing kids the BBC Torch Cam in an assembly, my friend Dom was running right at that point; which was really special. I was busy with my fundraising but I religiously watched the BBC Torch Cam as much as I could, when I wasn't cycling to places with my torch. I remember taking my torch to Chester and standing at the spot where last time I'd been there, thousands of people had surrounded me. An elderly couple were there taking photo's of each other, so I asked whether they wanted me to take a photo of them. I then handed them my torch to hold in the photo. They were gobsmacked; it truly made their day. I took the torch, or torchy as I began to call it, to a friends grandmothers birthday party. Apparantely she'd been hooked watching the relay on TV every day, and as her birthday cake was lit, I followed behind the cake with 'torchy' and the look on her face I will never forget. Priceless.
One of the most humbling moments was taking it to a charity called Vision Support, where most of the people there couldn't see what they were holding yet it didn't stop beaming smiles all around. I could tell you how brilliant every place and school I visited was, but I'd be here all day. From signing autographs in Delamere Forest to being chased by kids around a field on their primary school sports day, it never seemed to end. I wanted to do more, but looking back, I've exhausted myself. The relay never exhausted itself however, as it reached the south of Britain for the final time. 

Starting sometimes at the break of dawn, for 70 days, you'd think that the team of Metropolitan Police who accompanied it, tackling numpties of all ages who decided to try and grab their fame in the irresponsible way, would get fed up. Not the case at all. What a sound bunch, always smiling, helping and engaging with the torchbearers, and they never seemed to tire of lighting peoples torches with their allan key and the torch kiss. They gained real support from the public, often seen waving and hi-fiving the crowd, and being handed food. They didn't hesitate to give the muppets who cruelly thought they could spoil someone's well deserved moment to shine; a taste of tarmac. It was always well publicised but sadly some people didn't get the message that they'd be on their arse in seconds, which happened in Cornwall and Guildford to name just two incidents. We mustn't forget the streaker in Henley either. But these men and women did a sterling job of keeping us safe. 

One of the best things, is that the people selected for the honour of carrying the torch, are one big family. We look out for each other, help each other out, encourage, banter, (occasionally) fall out, an in one extraordinary case- romance has blossomed! And proof of that friendship, is that I am now en-route to see some of the Paralympics thanks to getting tickets from a fellow torchbearer. And last time I was in London, my fellow torchbearers put me up for two nights accommodation and got me tickets to two events. The 800cm of diecast aluminium with 8000 perforated holes, symbolises our bond and unity. I hope it stays the same way. For someone who is socially awkward with a lack of communication skills or confidence, it's given me a huge boost to finally find people on the same wavelength as me. 

How humble, yet proud, it made me feel to hear of it being held by such legends like Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Roger Bannister, Chris Bonnington and Lord Coe, to name but a few. To be on the same level as these people, is quite a warming feeling. At times I had felt like a celebrity myself.

But on it's penultimate day, I envisaged mixed emotions- particularly in those who'd played their part in the torch relay from Greece to London and were sad to see the relay take it's final hands; yet excited for the ignition of the cauldron, and the discovery of whom would light it. 7 years on, the moment the world had waited for, was here. The UK had to deliver, to show itself to the world, in the biggest show ever staged by Great Britain. Years of hard work were to be concluded on Friday the 27th of July. Many people were anxious- the world's eyes were on us. We were saddened that our flame was about to leave the streets forever, and I admit watching BBC Torch Cam live for the last time ever was mood-dampening, it was a damn good job we had the Games to look forward to. All good things must come to an end. 

I'd joked that Mr Bean would light the cauldron... and was chuffed to bits to see him appear, in a not so nostalgic, but equally hilarious role. The video showing the highlights of the torch relay, in which I recognised a few of my new friends, was heartwarming and my eyes were glued to the screen. I was a tad worried when David Becks approached the stadium with the flame, hoping that he wouldn't be lighting it, but I was made up when the mystery figure who received the flame came in the form of Sir Steve Redgrave. As he ran off towards the stadium, I couldn't help but smile. And even more fitting, was Steve running past the construction workers who had built the stadium, before surprising the world and handing his torch onto 5 teenagers in their black torchbearer tracksuits. From this moment on, over a billion eyes were transfixed to their TV screens, if they weren't lucky enough to be there for real, as the final torchbearers ran every precious step around the stadium and taking turns with the torch as they did so. I won't deny how jealous I felt at this moment, that these young people had the highly-coveted and unforgettable task of lighting the cauldron. 

What was even more fitting, and intelligently invented, was the 5 sporting legends handing their torches to the young athletes. Nobody expected it, which made it even more magical. As they all set off for one more run, no doubt the most incredible run of their lives, the world watched eagerly to await the moment when the flame would erupt into a cauldron and ignite London 2012. The backing music was an atmospheric complement and the stadium fell strangely silent. Then the moment we'd all waited for, the finale of the torch relay, the end of an era and the beginning of the next- the 5 torchbearers surrounded the hidden structure which was now revealed, the cauldron with it's 204 copper petals spherically resembling a sunflower. Their torches lifted triumphantly for one last time, then gently lowered the flame simultaneously onto the petals- the nursed flame bursting onto each petal. One by one they burst into an orange glow, and like a carousel, began to levitate and form a pyramid beneath the mesmerised teenagers standing below it who'd just initiated a masterpiece of modern ingenuity. As the world gasped, and goosebumps rushed through the arms of the torchbearers who were overwhelmed to be part of such a spectacle, but in reality everyone was gripped. The flame that had travelled 8000 miles and kindled millions of smiles and 'where were you when' memories, kindled the floating petals as they lifted into a flaming tower, towering the awe-struck teenagers.

But I was also extremely proud of what I'd done. The stammer I have always suffered with and still do to this day, seemed to disappear as if by magic, although my legs were trembling. I had been sick with nerves that morning, and the 5am start hadn't helped. Regardless I said 'yes' when a year ago I'd have refused to speak in front of 30 people in the classroom. I left on a high, and little did I know my life had just changed for the better, forever.

Due to this I have had the pleasure of meeting Olympic Bronze Medallist Gymnast Beth Tweddle amongst others. I've had letters from schoolkids and random gifts dropped off. But best of all, I've been able to make many people's day by passing them my torch, the same one which quivered in my hands just 3 months ago, although it feels like a lifetime. Any speculation of selling it was short-lived, as it is simply the most precious item I have ever owned; and to me it will always be priceless.

Just a day after climbing Mont Blanc, I watched eagerly as the Opening Ceremony unfolded, exceeding everyone's expectations and showcasing the British culture at it's very best. The athletes paraded out, country by country, dazzled by the twinkling towers of the Olympic stadium minisculing them, raring to go after years of dedication and commitment. The performers getting an experience of a lifetime and the anticipation for who would end our torch relay and be the last person to carry the London 2012 torch. This is what it had all become.

As the petals met and merged into one platform, the flames roared and the Olympic stadium erupted into a dazzling, erratic shower of fireworks, explosion of noise and it echoed with cheers from the 80,000 people lucky enough to be inside. The Games had officially began, and in bloody good style. I didn't stop smiling all night.

And then, for 2 weeks, the world enjoyed what was soon dubbed as the best Olympic Games in history. Whoever came up with 'Our Greatest Team' for Team GB, must have had a crystal ball. They did us very very proud. I loved how much the Games had grasped the imagination of the country. Many of the people who'd winged about the cost of the Games, were hesitantly loving watching our athletes compete against the world to a home crowd- something which must have made it extra special and I bet it gave them a boost too when they were in complete pain doing their utmost to achieve their dreams. I tried in vain to get tickets, but thanks to two fellow torchbearers, managed to see the football final, taekwondo, the race walk and the marathon. I was gutted to have missed the chance to get into the Olympic stadium though. But even at these events, the atmosphere was electric, pleasant and exciting. Supporting the Team GB athletes was great fun, and even athletes from countries we'd never heard of, were getting a welcoming of a lifetime from the British sport fans. It was no wonder tickets were selling out like the clappers. Being there in person was incomparable to watching it on the TV, and I imagine inside the Olympic stadium would have been even more spectacular, albeit a little deafening.

The games dominated the nation, with Team GB's medal's flowing in left right and center. Fantastic. Those 2 weeks flew by. I wish I'd taken the time to watch more of it- but I'm glad to have been able to at least see some events and get the Olympic atmosphere, which I really did absorb in London. Trying to think of a favourite moment, is difficult. Jessica Ennis smashing the heptathlon was extraordinary, as were the rowing golds, Gemma Gibbons' emotional tribute to her mum at the end of her match, Wiggo and his trademark sideburns blitzing the time trial to win gold with ease, and the Brownlee brothers had me gripped to the TV for their whole stunning triathlon victory, cheering like mad as they crossed the line to win Gold and Bronze medals. The swimming too was great but the velodrome seemed to be where it was all happening. I barely saw much, but I do remember Sir Chris Hoy's gold-winning performance, smashing the field once again in the Keirin and Team Sprint, to the humongous support and delight of the watching crowd. And I will never forget the tears of utter pride running down the cheek of the 6ft 1" and 200lb burly Scotsman, as he won his final Olympic gold in style, retiring in front of a home crowd and overwhelmed at his achievements, I imagine there weren't an awful lot of dry eyes in the velodrome that fine evening. The same goes for Victoria Pendleton, retiring gracefully with another gold medal and lots of tears. But there's plenty of other athletes who made their debut, who I look forward to seeing again for sure. The most exciting moments for me though, were in the Olympic stadium. As a runner, I loved the athletics. The key moments for me were Mo Farah and his gold duo, first the 10k, when Jess won gold along with Greg Rutherford, then the 5k. I was at a party and we were going wild when he legged it, literally, from the pack and won the gold with ease. Usain Bolt and his 100m final had anticipation over who would win amongst the Jamaicans... but the living legend had the crowd roaring for an intense 10 seconds, the stadium falling still as they waited for the starting gun. If you blinked, you'd miss it. Sporting memories, moments of history written, and never forgotten. Mo Farah's ecstatic expression of utter disbelief that he had just won his second gold medal was absolutely priceless. 

On the final night of the competition in the stadium before the Games had to come to a close, it couldn't have ended better. I could commentate on the remarkable moments and experiences of London 2012, but I don't need to. It couldn't have been a bigger success. Seb Coe was very true when he said that we had delivered. Rio have got a big job to do if they want to try and beat London. And I hope Team GB are stronger than ever in 4 years time. Since the torch relay began, I have found many reasons to be proud to be British. I have no doubt that there are thousands of children, as well as adults, who have been inspired to try that little bit harder and aim a bit higher, or start new sports. I know I have.

The moment the world weren't so excited about, besides a few of the miserable pundits out there, was the closing ceremony of the Games. On the 12th August, I returned from cheering the marathon runners on the streets of London, to watch the ceremony. It had completely the opposite atmosphere to the Opening ceremony. yet was equally stunning, magnificent and impressive. Eric Idle portrayed the perfect message to cheer us all up from our post-Olympic blues with 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'. Us torchbearers though were waiting for the dreaded moment when our flame died. I was in my torchbearer uniform, holding my torch, saluting with a glass of Coca-Cola, watching as the stadium unfolded to the anti-climax of the best 2 weeks in modern British history. I think it's safe to say there weren't many dry eyes, in the stadium or from the torchbearers, as Take That began to sing 'Rule the World' as the cauldron petals separated and began to lower towards the ground. I couldn't think of a more fitting song or lyrics to extinguish the flame like- 'The stars are coming out tonight'. It was an emotional few minutes as the cauldron returned to it's dome shape, the 204 flames still burning, as Take That literally did rule the world, just like London had for 2 weeks of historic sporting achievement. I thought the flame being extinguished at this point would have been perfect, but some ballet dancers followed next and then after a few other bits, the stadium fell still and to the horror of the torchbearers who'd carried it there, and shouts of 'Leave our flame alone!' (well, in my household anyway), one by one, the petals faded and fell into darkness, the flames leaving nothing but a puff of smoke. In a pattern, the flames extinguished right until the bottom layer when there was a delay. And within a second, they too had faded into memories. Fireworks serenaded the departure of the flame, but this time, there wasn't the excitement or anticipation like in the Opening Ceremony. My heart sank. I know I wasn't alone. Our flame, the one we'd been fortunate enough to carry there, had died. The Games, had ended, like that. There were a lot of emotional people that night, that's for sure. I couldn't believe our beautiful flame was no longer consuming oxygen, the beacon of the Games no longer trickling from the miserably dark copper petals and the sunken metal poles had crashed down to Earth, just like me. I raised my torch in salute, and took a moment to reminisce what I had been part of.

But one thing for sure, is that in every way the flame embodied the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship.

It shall be missed. Faster, Higher, Stronger- London 2012 certainly was. From the early days, to the end, London 2012 was an epic journey of a lifetime, and the British population embraced it in every aspect. And when I think back, it's hard to recall every moment, emotion and experience from the past 9 months as it had such a positive impact on my life. I can't help but feel deflated that the torch relay and the Olympics have ended and left a vacant space in the new life I have developed. But I also can't help but think how different my life would have been, had I not recieved the e-mail back in December last year to say I'd been chosen for this. Back then, I could never have dreamed that I would carry the Olympic torch. In all honesty, I'd never heard of the Olympic torch relay. And even when I was nominated, my perception of the next few months didn't even come close to what really happened, it was nowhere near. At times I almost felt a sense of isolation from my own body, as if all this wasn't really happening to an average 17 year old like myself. But it was blissfully true, like magic. I genuinely do feel blessed to be where I am now, and extremely grateful. Being a huge part of the Games 2012 is such an honour and the biggest reward I could ask for. 2012 is going to be a hard year to beat which I will never forget, and now I do feel a little lost trying to occupy myself.

The flame may have died, but the friendships and memories made, breath-taking moments of sport, medals galore, tears of joy and pride- will always remain in it's wake. The legacy will live on. A journey is measured best by the friends made, rather than the miles travelled. And I know it will always be in my heart, and come flooding back to me every time I gaze at my torch on the mantelpiece, for the rest of my life. And finally, all I can say is that it was the result of success that got me here. I endeavoured, prepared, struggled then succeeded in my goal to help others. Without that, I wouldn't be writing this today. The journey of a 1000 miles, begins with a single step...

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

London 2012- Inspire a generation...

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