Thrill ride for fan-turned-torchbearer

Sara and Melanie Groenewegen await Sara’s big moment as the surprise final torchbearer on White Rock’s leg of the relay.

A quick fast-food breakfast on her way to joining the throngs of spectators at the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay early Tuesday morning turned into a life-changing experience for Sara Groenewegen.

Sara, 14, and her family were leaving McDonald’s in South Surrey at 6 a.m., when she was approached by a relay official.

“Would either of you like to run with the Olympic torch?” Sara and her younger sister, Melanie, 11, were asked.

While Melanie – it turned out – was too young, Sara had little time to mull the offer. The torch was about to leave South Point Exchange Mall, and was due in White Rock a half-hour later.

Within minutes, the Elgin Park Secondary student found herself at White Rock Elementary, where she was hastily fit with red Olympic gloves and the same white tracksuit worn by other torch runners.

From there, Sara – who is an athlete, herself, as a White Rock Renegade – was thrust into a quick meeting with other White Rock torchbearers, where she was taught how to hold the flame, how to safely run with it and how to pass it off.

“I was actually late for that meeting, because it was all so last-minute,” she said. “It was unbelievable – it all happened so fast. I was… speechless for 10 minutes.”

Sara was told she would run the final 300-metre leg down Marine Drive, taking the torch from Olympian Sarah Evanetz, a swimmer at the ’96 Games in Atlanta, Ga.

As Sara was the final runner on Marine Drive, she was told she would be responsible for lighting a large lantern, which would be transported to Peace Arch Park for the continuation of the relay.

After a brief “enthusiastic warmup,” the torchbearers hopped into a van and were delivered to various starting locations.

With thousands of onlookers lining the streets, Sara admitted to being a little taken aback – especially considering she didn’t have much in the way of preparation time.

“I was so nervous that I could barely even move,” she said. “There were just swarms of people – I saw a lot of people I knew. I made sure to wave to all the little kids.”

And then it was all over – an hour and a half after she was first approached.

The next day, Sara was still coming to grips with her whirlwind experience – even if she’s still not 100 per cent sure why she was chosen in the first place.

“At first, they told me that I was replacing somebody who couldn’t make it, and I actually felt really bad about taking somebody else’s spot,” Sara said. “But later on, (a relay official) told my mom that they decided to add one more spot at the last minute, just to make somebody’s day.

“And it definitely made mine. It’s been one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. I’ll never forget it.”