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