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Torch Is Carried On

Olympics: Thousands show up to encourage the 46 who ran with the flame in Oxnard and Ventura.

January 17, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS and FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Taking a break from jobs and school, thousands of jubilant Ventura County residents witnessed history on the hoof Wednesday as torchbearers holding aloft the Olympic flame wended their way through wildly cheering, flag-waving crowds.

Lighted in Olympia, Greece, in November, the flame was flown to Atlanta, the site of the most recent Olympic Games in the United States. It has been transported to places as large as Los Angeles and as small as Hickory, N.C., with about 12,000 torchbearers each carrying the symbol of global harmony for two-tenths of a mile, about the length of 3 1/2 football fields.

Eager for the spectacle on Wednesday, Anne Viera hauled her three daughters in a stroller and a baby carrier to Ventura's Main Street, where Ventura High School cheerleaders performed routines beneath an immense archway of balloons in their school's colors of black and gold.

"It's like the fair parade," Viera explained to 7-year-old Allison. "Only now, it's the whole world getting together."

Hundreds of students drifted in and out of a rally at the high school, listening to music and playing hockey with broomsticks. Down the street, Ojai postal worker Reba Seba darted onto the sidewalk from beneath a hair dryer at the Self Image beauty salon.

"I thought I could sneak out here without being noticed," said Seba, wearing foil coverings in her hair and a black smock. "I just didn't want to miss out on anything."

In Oxnard, the caldron bearing the Olympic flame arrived by truck from Pasadena an hour past schedule. It will follow a dipsy-doodle course to the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, proceeding up the coast to Washington and being flown to Alaska before finally arriving at the opening ceremony Feb. 8.

At the flame's Ventura County launch point, a Chevrolet dealership off Oxnard Boulevard, a mariachi band pumped up the crowd and street vendors hawked everything from U.S. flags to plastic Olympic medals.

As the convoy and its police escorts drew near, 19-year-old David Rodela made his way to the starting line and became an instant celebrity.

The Oxnard resident, a lightweight boxer who aspires to compete in the 2004 Olympics, was chosen to kick off the county's link in the nationwide relay. A crowd hungry for photos and autographs mobbed him. When he lighted his torch, the crowd urged him along with a spontaneous chant: "USA! USA! USA!"

True to his word, Rodela walked his segment of the relay, savoring every step.

"I just wanted to enjoy a great moment," he said afterward, dressed in his white Olympic sweatsuit and holding onto the silver torch cylinder, its flame now extinguished. "This is going to be a day I remember until they put me in the ground."

The 46 torchbearers in Oxnard and Ventura were chosen in different ways. Shauna Peters, a 20-year-old university student from London, Ontario, won a drawing sponsored by a Canadian restaurant chain. Peters loped past Ventura High, assigned that segment arbitrarily by the relay's organizers.

Others were nominated by their friends and families because they had acted selflessly or overcome staggering adversities.

In Ventura, Terry White was cheered on by her family as she rounded a downtown corner. The 39-year-old Palmdale woman summed up her jog with a breathless "Wonderful!"--a simple description that is especially meaningful for a woman who has endured seven brain surgeries in three years.

Running up the steps at City Hall, Nadine Parsons of Fort Worth beamed as she used her torch to light the one carried by her mother, Sharon Troll. A breast cancer survivor, Troll works for the Boys & Girls Club of Ventura on programs to keep youths out of gangs.

Before her run, Troll picked a spot on her mantel for the torch she would use. Participants could buy their torches for $335.

"I'm just awed," she said.

The day's carnival atmosphere was punctuated with poignant observations. For many, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks weren't far from mind.

In green hospital scrubs, Don Lake, an intensive-care nurse at Ventura County Medical Center, recognized the day's bittersweet undertone as he stood on a sidewalk in Ventura, waiting for the procession to come through.

"With all that's going on in the world, this is pretty special right now," he said. "I'm behind anything that brings the country together a little more."

Even so, the day's novelty couldn't be denied.

"In Ventura you'll see just about anything," joked Leslie Garrett, a waitress at the Vagabond coffee shop downtown. "Someone running down the street with something that's on fire--not unusual. But the Olympic torch: Now, that's really a big deal!"

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