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Olympic torchbearers fire up Colorado crowds

Denver mayor enjoys sharing ‘special moment’

SHARE Olympic torchbearers fire up Colorado crowds

DENVER — As the caldron in Denver was lighted for the evening, two old friends embraced on stage.

The emphatic hug was between Mayor Wellington Webb and Wednesday's final torchbearer, Lonnie Porter, a legendary Denver basketball coach and one of Webb's longtime friends.

Afterward, Webb said the Salt Lake Organizing Committee chooses the runners and where they run, but he was happy with the way things turned out.

"We were all just running on adrenaline," Webb said. "It was great to get to share that special moment."

The crowd, which gathered near the Denver City and County Building to see the caldron aflame, was wet and cold from the falling snow and tired from waiting to see the torch, which was running over an hour behind schedule.

When Porter bounded to the front with the flame, though, all of the hardships seemed to be forgotten — or at least forgiven. The crowd cheered while Porter lighted the caldron and fireworks exploded in the sky.

Webb said Denver has a special kinship to Salt Lake City — even though the Colorado city turned down an opportunity to host the Winter Games.

In 1972, Denver became the first city to pull out of hosting duties. The decision to turn back the Games to the International Olympic Committee came after voters turned down a proposal to publicly fund the 1976 Winter Games.

"We're in the same part of the country, and we both love the snow and to ski. . . . We'll just hope Utah doesn't take too many of our skiers away when the Olympics are over," Webb added later with a smile.

Helping bring the torch to the caldron in Denver was former professional football player John Elway. "It was awesome. I played a sport that wasn't an Olympic sport, so I never got the chance to be a part of the Olympics before," Elway said.

Earlier in the day, students from Hearts in Hand preschool waved homemade aluminum foil torches with construction paper flames while the real thing arrived in Colorado.

Kelly Haley wheeled through the first leg of the torch relay in Fort Collins. Haley held the torch high while being pushed in her wheelchair. Haley has battled multiple sclerosis for 14 years and is unable to walk.

Haley's husband, Jack, admitted he knew less than half of the people in the cheering crowd who were calling his wife's name. "My wife is pretty well-known around here," he said. "She's well-known for being her. For being a good person."

When Kelly Haley finished her leg of the relay — and after posing for dozens of photos — she said she was still in a daze.

"They tell you on the bus before you run that when you are carrying the torch that you are the only person in the world carrying the flame. It's just overwhelming," Kelly Haley said.

In Boulder, a sizable contingent from the small mountain town Estes Park arrived to see the torch. The torch wasn't scheduled to make it to their town, so 150 residents drove an hour to support the two members of their community who had been selected to run the torch in Boulder.

As Elizabeth Repola made her way past the Estes Park home crowd, the mass of family, friends and neighbors ran alongside of her, shouting encouragement.

The torch was scheduled Thursday to pass through Denver, Littleton, Castle Rock, the Air Force Academy and Colorado Springs.

E-MAIL: pthunell@desnews.com