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Fri 15th Nov 2019
© Peter Levison
John Levison: the Olympic Torch experience
Posted by: JohnLevison
Posted on: Thursday 26th July 2012

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Tri247 Editor John Levison shares his London 2012 Torch Relay experience, one he won't forget.

Carrying the London 2012 Olympic Flame

Wednesday 25th July 2012, 4pm, Southgate, London Borough of Enfield. It all started 11 months ago....

The Background

On Friday August 12th 2011 I was told, somewhat out-of-the-blue, that I needed to have a Triple Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (a "triple heart bypass" in common language). I was 39, have never smoked a cigarette in my life, don't drink excessively and have completed four ironman triathlons and a sub-three hour marathon... Bombshell doesn't even come close to describing that moment.

Not the best news I'd ever had, but having been told five years previously that I had cancer at 34, I suppose it wasn't a totally new experience! Here we go again I thought... just deal with the cards that life has played you.

A measure of the urgency of the surgery was probably that my surgeon, Dr Desai - legend - said there and then, "if you can stay in now, I'll do it on Monday." And this was on the NHS. Whoa... that was just too soon. I had a life to (re)arrange at very short notice - can I delay it a week please?!

Less than four months later, two days before Christmas 2011, I was getting married. I wasn't on my own on this journey, indeed, I think the whole process of these situations can be much harder on those around you. In a sense, for me it was 'easy'... I had no choice, so I didn't need to think; have operation which very smart people have explained that you need, do what you are told, stay positive, do your rehabilitation and try and recover. For Lesley, this was her rock potentially falling apart. Or potentially, worse.

Less than four months to the wedding, and at least three months of recovery ahead.

The Nomination

The following Monday - in floods of tears she tells me! - my (now) wife Lesley saw the Coca Cola Future Flames application to nominate Torchbearers for the 2012 Olympic Games, and she nominated me. I hadn't heard of it, and certainly hadn't given it a thought or even considered myself 'worthy' of such an application. Still, I was honoured that she had taken the time and effort to write on my behalf. I never thought it would go any further and virtually forgot about it.

Less than two weeks later, Thursday 25th August, I was wheeled into the Operating Theatre (I did ask if I could walk as a matter of principle, but wasn't allowed to), where - very simply - they put you under General Anesthetic, circular saw your sternum open, 'harvest' various arteries/veins from elsewhere on your body (my left leg), and graft these onto your heart, 'bypass' the knackered ones and then wire your ribs back together and sew you back up. Simples!

Post operation scars

The News

8th December 2011, an email arrives: "Congratulations John, we think you've got what it takes to be a London 2012 Olympic Torchbearer." Bloody hell, I'm in!! Amazing.

And to make it even more incredible, my sister-in-law Boo (who we followed to Ironman Austria last year), had also been nominated, and successful through British Airways, to carry the Torch too. On the same day...Wednesday 25th July 2012 would be a very special day for our families.

John and Boo

The Experience

It was marvellous. Staggering. Humbling. Thrilling. Emotional. Wonderful. Surprising. Inspirational. And more.

And I promise, I don't say this lightly, or because it's what you 'should' say. It was 100 times more than I'd ever have believed it could or would be.

My 'leg' started in Southgate, North London. Central Southgate as it turned out, right on 'The Bourne', yards from the entrance to the Underground Station. There were thousands of people, seemingly packed 10-deep. "It's carnage down here" I was told - in a positive way - by text message before I had arrived at my handover point. This TV screen shot may give an indication of what I arrived to.

Crowds in Southgate

Each of the torchbearers is transported by bus, and dropped off at their designated start points around five to ten minutes prior to the arrival of the preceding carrier.

As I exited the bus, torch in hand, I could feel everyone looking at me. For that five minutes anyone within reach - and some from beyond - all wanted to take my photo, be in a photo with me, touch the torch, see the torch, ask who I was, wish me luck. It's really quite overwhelming that so many people, of all ages and backgrounds - for reasons that even they probably can't explain - all came out to be a part of it, to see it or just to be able to say 'they were there'. Just as they have for the last ten weeks.

If anyone still claims that the British aren't interested in the Olympics...

with the torch

The 'run' was surreal. You can't help but smile. With the weather at 30°+, I was very thankful that I'd been able to trade in my large torchbearer top for an XL version. Smart move! You get to run, typically, around 300 yards. It's not that far, but every step is precious. In one sense it felt like the moment had gone on for ages, while at the same time being over before you knew it, and runner #99 was ready to take over from me.

with the torch and family

It may have been my moment to shine, but it was something I got to share with family, friends and complete strangers and it was as much about them as me.

Thank you Lesley for making it possible, I'll never forget it. It's been quite a year.

with the torch and Lesley

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