Janet Evans relives 1996 Olympic torch handoff to Muhammad Ali (video)

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Janet Evans tells people that she would give up all five of her Olympic swimming medals to live that moment just one more time.

So Evans considered it an honor to host the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards on Sept. 19.

“I think we all have our Muhammad Ali moments, moments that he inspired us, moments that he changed our lives, moments that he inspired us to be better than what we already are,” Evans said in her opening address at a podium inside a hotel ballroom in Louisville, Ky., the 1960 Olympic boxing champion’s hometown. “My Muhammad Ali story took me from being an Olympic winner to being an Olympic champion.”

Evans went on to retell her part of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic torch relay as the next to last torch bearer. Here’s a transcript:

About six weeks outside of the Olympic Games, I received a call from a gentleman named Billy Payne, the great southern gentleman who brought the Olympics to the great city of Atlanta. Billy asked me if I would do him a favor and run the torch at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games. He would not tell me who was passing me the torch. He would not tell me who I was passing the torch to, but I would be the second to last person to carry that flame, and the final woman.

I said to Mr. Payne, ‘Mr. Payne, I’m a swimmer. Swimmers don’t go to Opening Ceremonies. We swim the next day.’ I’d never been to the Opening Ceremonies as an athlete. I’d been in ’84 as a spectator. I said, ‘Plus, how many people are going to be watching?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you know, three billion or so.’ And I said, ‘Well, Mr. Payne, once again I’m a swimmer. Swimmers don’t run. I am not going to carry a lit flame through the Atlanta stadium and fall and forever be remembered as that little swimmer who dropped the Olympic flame and lit the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Stadium on fire.’ Well, in his true southern gentleman style, Mr. Payne talked me into it.

And at midnight, the night before Opening Ceremonies, under the cover of darkness, I went to the Atlanta stadium, and I practiced running the torch. The only thing was the person that was lighting that cauldron wasn’t there. But when they told me it was going to be Muhammad Ali, and when they told me that I had to keep it secret, because let me tell you I wanted to tell everyone, I was more nervous than ever. How do you pass the Olympic flame to the greatest, right? I was out of my mind, and I had to swim the next day.

Before I know it, it’s the Opening Ceremonies, and I’m running along that track, and I’m thinking, don’t fall, Janet. Just don’t fall. Get up to Ali. He’s going to be waiting for you. Don’t fall. Don’t light the stadium on fire. Don’t catch my hair on fire with the flame. And I looked to my left, my first Opening Ceremonies as an athlete, and I see 10,000 athletes that are in Atlanta representing their countries. I see the Americans, because they pushed their way to the front of that crowd of athletes. And I see the gymnasts on the shoulders of the basketball team. And I see the water polo team. I don’t see swimmers, because they weren’t there. My friends on the water polo team are shouting, ‘You’re going to fall!’ And I didn’t.

And I looked past the Americans, for the first time. This was my third Olympic Games. I was the girl in the village that ate with the Americans. I spoke only to the Americans. I didn’t experience the Olympics. And I looked, and I saw athletes from all over the world. And I saw, yes, the stars, but I saw the table tennis player from Mongolia, and I saw the fencer from Tunisia, and I saw the athletes that we don’t see on NBC. And I saw the looks in their eyes. And I saw the excitement they were experiencing for being at the Olympics and participating in something that brings people together.

And I ran up that track, and I ran up those three big, long stairways. And I got to the top, and there stood Muhammad Ali. And I never cried after any of my Olympic medals, but I wanted to cry. And my moment with him was brief; you saw how quickly he lit that flame. But that moment for me, standing there, watching this man, with his courage and his determination, and being brought into the Olympic fold once again, 36 years after his gold medal in 1960. And to stand there in front of the world and inspire even more young people like myself, to be and do and accomplish anything we want to do, it was an epiphany for me. It was a defining moment in my Olympic career.

After those Olympics, I wanted to quit swimming and go back to college, and I don’t know what I wanted to do. But after standing there with that man and watching him, I realized that as an Olympian, as an Olympic champion, a mantle we carry is to inspire and motivate others. And no one has ever done that greater than Muhammad Ali. So, Mr. Ali, thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for allowing me to continue to inspire young swimmers and young people to do and be the very best that they can be as well. Thank you.

MORE ATLANTA 1996: Ten memorable moments from Turner Field/Centennial Olympic Stadium

Wladimir Klitschko remembers meeting Ali at 1996 Olympics

Kerri Walsh Jennings’ next partner is a familiar one

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Kerri Walsh Jennings is slated to play with with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh this summer, after she and Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross split last month.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion with Misty May-Treanor before that bronze in Rio, and Branagh, who made the Beijing Games quarterfinals with Elaine Youngs, are entered in an FIVB World Tour event in Croatia the last week of June.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are both 38 years old and briefly paired in 2010 when May-Treanor was uncertain about making a run for the London Olympics. When May-Treanor told Walsh Jennings she was all-in for London, Walsh Jennings split from Branagh.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are hoping to play together through the World Tour Finals in late August, according to Volleyball Magazine.

That includes the world championships in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

It’s not known if they will have the combined ranking points to earn an outright worlds spot. They could also receive a wild card for worlds. Entries will be announced next month.

Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has said she hopes to play in the 2020 Olympics at age 41, when she will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

Branagh returned to competition this year after a one-year break to have her second child. She has played few international events since 2012 and last won internationally in 2010 (with Walsh Jennings).

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat in Rio. Ross, 34, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season.

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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