WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Tom Wier, a Whitman senior and a national champion in wildwater canoeing, was just a little surprised by the reception he and others received as they ran the Olympic Torch through the streets of the Tri-Cities last Friday morning.
Gray skies and cold winds took a back seat to the warmth and enthusiasm generated by the hundreds of well-wishers who seemed to line every block of the 10-mile route through Pasco and Kennewick.
"The crowd was amazing," Wier says. "I had not expected that many people to be there. They were all very excited to see the torch, and they wanted to talk to me and have pictures taken with me afterward."
Wier, a biology major from Boulder, Colo., was one of 27 runners who carried the Olympic flame along a course that began at Pasco High School and ended at Kennewick's Westgate Elementary. Wier's two-tenths of a mile began on Dayton Street, a short distance past Kennewick High School, and wrapped around onto W. 10th Avenue.
Once Wier handed off the Olympic flame, his time in the spotlight was not quite over. About 20 children and 10 adults, including one woman from New York City, clustered around to have their photographs taken with him. Many more people snapped photos in passing as Wier, holding his very own Olympic Torch and dressed in the official torchbearer's uniform (windbreaker jacket, long sleeve t-shirt, wind pants), good-naturedly held court.
Runners in the torch relay had the opportunity to buy their own torch at a cost of $335. His parents, Patricia and Stuart Wier of Boulder, Colo., along with teachers and friends, helped with the purchase cost, Wier says, and "I'm very grateful for that."
Made of silver, copper and glass, each torch weighs about three pounds and is 33 inches long. Three inches wide at the top, and tapering to a half-inch at the bottom, the torch was designed to look like a mountain icicle.
Wier was one of about 11,500 "inspirational" torchbearers chosen last spring from among the 210,000 nominations submitted across the country. The Olympic flame was lit on Nov. 19 in Olympia, Greece, and arrived in Atlanta, Ga., on Dec. 4. By the time the flame arrives at Salt Lake City's Olympic Stadium on Feb. 8 for the start of the Winter Games, it will have traveled more than 13,500 miles through 46 U.S. states.
Wier was nominated by one of his Whitman classmates, Jeanette Fiess, a senior biology major from Poulsbo, Wash. Fiess, whose nominating essay praised Wier's dedication to wildwater canoeing and his college studies, was one of several Whitman students on hand to see him carry the Olympic flame. Others along the relay route included Julie Fiess (Jeanette's younger sister), Jennifer Wieczorek (Salem, Ore.), James Lee (West Linn, Ore.), Chris Holt (Hillsboro, Ore.) and Richard Detheridge (Puyallup, Wash.).
Wier, who trains during the academic year at Bennington Lake near Walla Walla, is a two-time defending national champion in wildwater canoeing. He captured his first title in 2000 on the Kern River, about three hours north of Los Angeles. Last summer, he defended his title on the Pigeon River near Newport, Tennessee. Races typically cover three to four miles of whitewater, with racers being timed to see who can get down the river the fastest from point a to point b.
As a member of the U.S. Wildwater Team, Wier competed in the World Championships in June, 2000, near Treignac, France, placing 29th overall in a field of teams representing about 40 nations. He then stayed in Europe for an additional six weeks, competing in World Cup races in Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic.
A wildwater competitor for the past five years, Wier is currently in training for the 2002 World Championships, to be held May 30-June 2 near Val Sesia, Italy. He plans to leave for Europe immediately after his May 19 Whitman graduation for some last-minute, on-site training.
Wildwater canoeing and kayaking are not currently part of the Summer Olympics. Some wildwater enthusiasts are actively campaigning for Olympic status, but Wier doesn't expect that to happen until 2008, at the earliest. For now, he says, his hope is that the sport continues to grow in the years ahead.
Wier was not the only Whitman connection to last week's torch run through the Tri-Cities. That day's last runner, 75-year-old Margaret Racy of Kennewick, was nominated by two of her granddaughters, one of whom is Rea Culwell, a 1994 Whitman graduate who now works as the assistant director of planned giving in the college's Development Office.
Racy has championed athletics for girls and women ever since 1940, when she helped raise money for tennis courts at her Grand Coulee (Wash.) High School. She played intramural sports at Washington State University, where she graduated with a degree in physical education. She later taught and coached at Columbia Basin College, where her women's teams were among the first ever formed in the state. She is a member of the Hall of Fame of the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges, and the trophy awarded annually to the association's tennis champion carries her name.