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Torch ignites passion for home and country

Kally Heslop grasped the torch and a wildfire swept her emotions, parched by a lifelong Olympic thirst.

"The second it was lit, the tears started running down my eyes," said Heslop, 41, who participated in the relay taking the Olympic torch through Utah on the way to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games.

Heslop's children — Miquel, Lindsey, Tyler and Cassidy — quickly were dashing alongside her.

"That's my mom! That's my mom!" they cried.

Cadres of Heslop's friends and neighbors were there, urging her on.

So was her donor family from a heart transplant operation seven years previous.

"I was running down the street with this amazing feeling that I was alive because an organ donor had allowed me the gift of life. And I was overwhelmed by the fact I was getting to have this kind of Olympic moment," Heslop said.

Ever since swimming competitively growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., she dreamed of standing on an Olympic podium.

"It was something I thought of over and over as a little girl," she said.

Eventually, the goal faded into marriage and motherhood. After the birth of one child, she experienced severe hormone changes weakening her heart, doctors said.

When she was 29, she had her first heart attack. A week later, she had another during an angiogram. Only a transplant would save her. It came seven months later.

"Obviously, one of my heroes is Dr. (Dale) Renlund," she said of the Salt Lake cardiologist who headed the team performing the operation at the University of Utah Medical Center.

It is Heslop who's inspirational to others. She was nominated in '96 to run a torch relay leg in the Olympics' first "Community Heroes" program, where so-called ordinary citizens do the heavy lifting, instead of the celebrity-driven relays of former Games.

Heslop came back from her surgery to star in international transplant athletic competition. She swam to gold, silver and bronze medals in six U.S. Transplant Games. She'll be in her second World Transplant Games this August in Kobe, Japan.

"This competition inspired me. It gave me the motivation to get back into shape and back into the water," Heslop said.

Her health now?

"I'm better 12 years out from transplant than I was three years out. I just had a checkup. All arteries clean," she said.

Now she turns her attention to others needing transplants. She and two other heart transplant survivors, Jason Ivers and Dycie Allred, have formed Common Threads Inc. Located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, it provides a place for would-be transplant patients awaiting an organ, free of charge.

"The last thing you need is the worry of where to stay in this situation. No one is turned away. It's one small way of repaying the gift of life given me," Heslop said.

For Sheldon Teerlink, Taylorsville, now a Utah State University student, the odds seemed something like a million to one he'd ever get to touch an Olympic torch in '96, or ever.

After starting track at Eisenhower Junior High, he and a buddy would run the streets of Taylorsville, talking about what it must be like to run the torch to the top of a stadium before cheering throngs and light the cauldron.

"He said he'd give me a million dollars if I ever got to run the torch," Teerlink said.

Three years later at Granite High, Teerlink was nominated as a torch-worthy "community hero" for his work coaching a Special Olympics team.

A large contingent of Granite High students turned out to urge Teerlink through his leg down State Street in Midvale.

"When the flame was passed to me, I stood in awe for a moment watching the flame burn, knowing that its journey was just beginning, as was mine," Teerlink said.

"All I could hear the whole time I ran were people shouting my name from the roadside. I waved at every single one of them, grateful they had come to watch me participate in a dream."

Friends and family — mom Diana; dad Adrian; sisters Donnica, Andra and Allison — were there, as were neighbors with signs bearing Teerlink's nickname "T-Dawg."

He has those cheers still ringing in his ears today, as well as a framed photograph of himself holding the torch, courtesy of his sisters.

And the million bucks from his buddy?

"Well, I don't think he knows I ran since we parted ways after junior high," Teerlink said.

"But the feelings of having done something great are worth more than the cash."

For Jack Rhodes of Provo, one huge value of becoming involved in the '96 torch relay was replaying history.

His great-great-grandfather, Howard Egan, Jack said, had been a captain of the ninth "ten," in the vanguard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settlers moving west to Utah.

Then Howard became a superintendent of a leg on the famed Pony Express. And Howard's sons — Howard R. Egan and Erastus Egan — followed his hoofprints as Pony Express riders.

That led to Jack becoming part of the National Pony Express Association, which has re-enacted mail rides the past 20 years. When the Olympic folks sought association riders to carry the torch on horseback through Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, they didn't have to ask Rhodes twice.

"This is in my blood," Rhodes said. "Nothing could have kept me away."

It was one of the most meaningful experiences of his life — which is saying something for a guy shot down flying helicopter gunships in Vietnam.

"The thing that touched me the most was when we were riding through the night — they asked us to keep going, night and day, just like the Pony Express did. And as I rode through this empty space in Nebraska in the middle of the night, all I can remember is people appearing out of nowhere," Rhodes said.

They weren't ghosts. They were just live people pulled outside their homes by Olympic spirits.

"I'm talking 3 in the morning and there were these elderly people, wrapped in blankets, coming out of their farmhouses. There were little kids and teenagers of every description — including the longhairs.

"All along, I could hear them shout — many of them these same teenagers — 'Yeah, yeah! That's what America's all about. Keep on ridin' buddy.'

"They wanted to touch the torch, to see it all lit up and carried on its way."

Like Heslop and Teerlink, Rhodes has given of himself to his community. He and his wife, Becky, volunteer as spiritual counselors at a Provo home for troubled youth.

Like Heslop and Teerlink, he readily shelled out the $275 to keep the torch he carried. Like them, he figures it's worth every penny.

"I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam. I feel like I had a guardian angel on my shoulder to make it home," Rhodes said. "Anything that touches us all as a unifying force in America is a beautiful thing.

"The torch one of those truly beautiful things."


E-MAIL: gtwyman@desnews.com