Tom Kozlowicz knew it would be the adventure of a lifetime. But he didn’t expect just how much it would change his life.
On Wednesday, Kozlowicz returned from his two-week trip to England, where he was one of only 18 Americans to carry the torch for the 2012 Olympics. And even now, nearly two weeks after he carried that flame through the town of Chipping Campden to the thunderous applause of onlookers, he is still thinking about the people he met there, and drawing inspiration from them.
Kozlowicz, 67, lives in Yorkville and is a manager at the in Oswego. By all accounts, he’s a salt-of-the-earth guy, a friend to all. It was his work with Big Brothers Big Sisters and with anti-drug addiction organizations that led his boss, Anita Patel, to nominate him for the honor of carrying the torch.
Holiday Inn’s parent company, the InterContinental Hotels Group, is a housing sponsor for the 2012 Olympics in London, and was offered 71 of the 8,000 slots in this year’s torchbearer relay. In February, Tom learned that he was one of those selected.
He later learned that he’d be one of four runners carrying the Olympic flame through the small Cotswolds town of Chipping Campden, home to about 2,200 people. Tom said he did not expect a lot of people to come out for the Olympic torch parade through such a small town, but he was surprised – there were about 7,000 people lining the streets, he said.
From the moment he and his wife arrived in England, Kozlowicz said, they were welcomed with open arms. His friend Barry Croall, whom he met through the Greater Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, had arranged for a special tour guide on Tom’s first day – Barry’s parents, who live in England, picked them up at the airport and brought them to Birmingham, stopping in Windsor to see the castle, and Oxford to see the university.
On Saturday the 30th, Tom attended an orientation session, where he got to meet his fellow runners. And one in particular inspired him – 35-year-old Julie Darwin of Gloucester, England. When Julie was 15, she had dreams of becoming a gymnast, but an accident on a balance beam left her a paraplegic. Julie’s gone on to be a biomedical scientist, and she participates in races to raise money for those less fortunate.
“I thought, if she can do that, I can do anything,” Tom said.
He also met a blind woman from England who used a seeing-eye dog to lead her through the torch relay. The two have become friends and pen-pals, Tom said. That was one of the unexpected joys of the experience, he said – he met several people he expects will remain his friends for life.
When he first arrived in Chipping Campden on Sunday the 1st, clad in his Olympic track suit, he was immediately approached by a large man wearing an Olympic medallion, asking his name. As it turned out, this was Mayor Chris Jones, and he officially welcomed Tom to his town, and thanked him.
“I thought, I should be thanking you for the honor of doing this,” Tom said. “Everywhere I went, people revered us for bringing the Olympics to them.”
Because Chipping Campden only had four torch relay runners, Tom said, each of them had to go a bit farther than they expected. The typical runner carried the torch for the equivalent of three football fields, but Tom said he ran with it for about six and a half football fields. (“When they told me, I could feel my stomach churning,” he said.)
Throughout the day, a continuous stream of people came up to Tom to shake his hand, or get photographs with him. Before long, he saw the parade cresting the hill in front of him, and Julie Darwin in her wheelchair, holding the torch, and he knew it was time.
Unlike a more typical relay race, the torch is not passed – each runner has his or her own torch, and they “kiss,” passing the flame from one to the other. Lighting the torch, Tom said, “you almost feel an electricity go through you. It’s almost a spiritual revelation. I felt I was part of a life that had forever existed.”
The run itself, Tom said, was a blur. It took him a day and a half to reconstruct it in his mind. He remembers cheering, seeing people hanging from windows to catch a glimpse of the torch. To them, he said, this was the Olympics, the only part they would ever see, and he felt honored to bring it to them.
And he remembers almost losing strength on the final hill. But he made it, and passed on the flame to the next runner, becoming part of a tradition that has lasted centuries.
After the relay passed through, the people of Chipping Campden held a celebration for the runners at the local high school. There was food in abundance, Tom said, and a 45-minute dance recital performed by local students. He was awed, and humbled, and grateful.
And yes, he got to keep the torch. Tom said he brought it to a local Mailboxes store in Birmingham to ship it back home, and the employees treated it as a sacred object. It arrived unscathed, Tom said, and it’s something he plans to keep and treasure forever. He’s seen some people sell their Olympic torches for a lot of money online, but he said he would consider that “the highest insult to what it represents.”
Now back in America, after taking a week to see the sights in England, Tom said the experience has changed him more than he expected, and he will never forget it.
“I guarantee you, if you had the same opportunity, you would come back and look at your job, your life, and what’s important differently,” he said. “This has helped me realize what’s really important. It’s put my life into perspective.”