More torch runners step up

With less than a month to go before the 2010 Olympic torch arrives in town, three more Peninsula athletes have been tagged to carry the flame.

Ian McMaster, a Grade 10 student and rugby player at Earl Marriott Secondary, learned late summer that he was chosen to take part in the torch relay, while Ferg Hawke – one of Canada’s most accomplished ultra-marathon runners – has one of the spots designated by the provincial government.

A third local athlete, martial artist Erik Stevenson – in Grade 10 at EMS – was tagged for the final day of the relay, Feb. 12 as the torch makes the stretch run into Downtown Vancouver.

Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg nominated Hawke for the event.

Unlike McMaster, who will run with the torch Feb. 9 when it passes through Surrey, Hawke will carry the torch Jan. 23 in Salmo, B.C.

“Gordie called me to tell me he’d nominated me, and I found out in October I’d been picked. Then about a month ago, I found out where I’d be running with it,” Hawke explained.

Hawke, 52, has twice competed in the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 217-km race through the searing heat of Death Valley, Calif. In 2004, the South Surrey resident finished second. He’s also taken part in such grueling ultra-distance races as the Marathon des Sables – a seven-day stage race across the blistering hot Sahara Desert – and the Stormy 100 Trail Race.

“This (torch run) shouldn’t be as tough – it’s only 300 metres,” Hawke joked.

“But it might be the most exciting 300 metres I’ve ever ran – maybe on par with approaching the finish line at Badwater.

“It’s certainly going to be a really memorable experience. I’m darned excited about it. It’s going to be great.”

McMaster will take hold of the Olympic flame on the afternoon of Feb. 9 in Fleetwood.

Though he’s known about being chosen since the summer, he says the excitement hasn’t worn off.

“My dad actually signed me up for it, so I was pretty surprised when I heard I’d made it,” McMaster said last week. “It’s pretty cool. Something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

McMaster and Stevenson will be among the Peninsula’s youngest torchbearers, joining Elgin Park Grade 9 student Nick Rutckyj. Stevenson’s route will be along Vancouver’s Great Northern Way.

Others who have come forward as torch bearers include Cheryl Cruickshank and Alfred Bennett. Torch committee officials have declined to release a full list of names until 48 hours before they’re scheduled to carry it.

The torch passes through White Rock and South Surrey Feb. 9 – on day 103 of the journey which began earlier this year in Victoria. The torch was passed along a route which took it all the way to the Maritimes, before returning to the West Coast.

McMaster will run with the torch in Fleetwood at 4:15 p.m.

“I’m just going to pick it up, run with it and hope I don’t fall,” McMaster said.

Meanwhile, another local resident, Olympian Janice Birch, had her turn with the torch Jan. 3 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Birch – who won silver in synchronized swimming at the 1996 Summer Olympics – heeded a call from the torch committee, which was looking for Olympians from past Games who would be interested in taking part.

Joining Birch on her journey was her daughter, Kendall, who wore her mom’s silver medal as she ran alongside the torch.

Birch described the experience as “a Zen moment.”

The event was a homecoming of sorts for Birch, who grew up in the Algoma region of Ontario, and as a child spent summers in nearby Blind River. She still has relatives in the area, many of whom came out to watch her carry the flame.

Prior to the run, her uncle, Ontario resident Andy Bremner, said the idea of his niece running with the torch was “absolutely mind-blowing.”

“I’m so proud of that girl… 1996 wasn’t that long ago. I can’t think of Janice these days without thinking of the Maple Leaf,” Bremner, told The Sault Star.