When the letter arrived at her Woodland Hills home in February saying she'd been picked to carry the Olympic torch, Agnes Hector thought it was a joke. Her husband William, annoyed, promptly threw it away.
The 82-year-old former ballerina said she learned it was true only after "reading my name in the newspaper."
On Saturday, she'll join more than 200 Los Angeles County residents and Olympic athletes in hoisting the flame through the streets of Southern California, the start of a 15,000-mile, 84-day trek across the country to the Olympic Games' opening ceremony July 19 at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Stadium.
"It'll be a wonderful day," Hector said in an interview at Capistrano Avenue Elementary School in Canoga Park where she works a volunteer. "It's a great honor."
About 10,000 torchbearers will take part in the relay over the next 12 weeks, including more than three dozen residents of the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. They were selected by United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Coca-Cola and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.
The runners include a young Canoga Park woman who lost a leg to cancer, an HIV-positive woman, an Agoura Hills psychologist who traveled to Croatia to help children traumatized by war, an Encino police officer who trains kids to avoid drugs and a 17-year-old standout athlete from Chaminade High School in West Hills and an 81-year-old retired artist and avid runner from Northridge.
"We were the everyday people who instead of sitting back watching the world turn around us went ahead and got involved," said Patricia Cowden, 39, a county probation officer who remembers being inspired by the torch relay that preceded the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'I want to do this.' "
Being chosen is especially satisfying, Cowden explained, because she suffers from a rare disease that weakens her muscles--a condition that has limited her participation in athletics for much of her life.
"I could never keep up," the Tujunga resident recalled of childhood struggles with physical education classes. "Nobody picked me for the basketball team."
Thomas Dakoske, 49, wept when his family informed him that he'd been selected, saying he has fantasized about going to the Olympics since he was a boy. While the Olympic competition is open only to the world's finest athletes, he said, the torch relay is a showcase for ordinary folks.
"I really believe that the Olympics also embrace the common man," the psychologist said. "Let's celebrate not just the heroics but the individual differences that make us all great. This is great to be part of that."
For the HIV-positive woman who has not disclosed her illness to all her friends and family, she sees the relay as a dream come true and a powerful symbol of hope.
"It's a validation of life," she said.
To prepare for their kilometer-long segments, Dakoske started jogging with his dog, while Cowden worked out with a treadmill at home.
Despite their preparations, anxieties remain.
"I can see myself tripping and falling, dropping it," Cowden said. "That's my fear."
"This is really thrilling for me," said Vincent Malizia of Northridge, a retired artist who will run in Huntington Beach before dawn Sunday, lighting his torch from the preceding runner's flame about 2:15 a.m.
He doesn't care about the time, he said. "I just want to be there."
Malizia says he runs every day, entering half-marathons, 5K and 10K races nearly every weekend.
His daughter, Patricia Hamm, entered his name just days before the deadline without his knowledge. "He's the pride of the family," Hamm said. "He's quite a guy."
Lit from a fire in Olympia, Greece on March 30, the flame is scheduled to arrive at Los Angeles International Airport at 8 a.m. Saturday. It will be transferred across town via helicopter to the Coliseum where a ceremony will herald the start of the relay.
The torch will enter the San Fernando Valley about 3:30 p.m. via Riverside Drive in Glendale, passing the headquarters of the Walt Disney Co. and NBC along Alameda Avenue before heading south through Cahuenga Pass on Barham Boulevard. Olympic organizers estimate it will pass within a two-hour distance of 90% of the U.S. population as it heads east, carried by foot, bicycle, train, horseback, canoe, steamboat, plane and sailboat.
For Canoga Park resident Liz Giltner, the short distance she'll run with the torch on Saturday is just the first step toward a bigger goal--competing in the Olympic Games herself.
"I'm going to have to wait until 2000, 2004," the 17-year-old track and field star predicted but said she's extremely grateful for her small role in the 1996 Games.
"It's a big responsibility and it's a huge compliment. I'm awe-struck."
Times staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this story.
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