WEST VALLEY CITY — For most people who get a chance to participate in the Olympics, it’s the culmination of a dream. For Ryne Sanborn, it was just the beginning of one.
Fifteen years ago, when the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City, Sanborn was cast as the Child of Light — the ice-skating, lantern-toting youngster in the opening and closing ceremonies who embodied the slogan of the Games: Light the Fire Within.
He was 12 years old and, quite literally, at the center of it all when an estimated 3 billion television viewers worldwide tuned in to watch him skate, in addition to the 50,000 live spectators at Olympic Stadium and the 2,300 athletes from 78 countries who dutifully followed him into the stadium.
Now 27 and a sales manager at the American Express customer service center near his home in West Valley City, Sanborn looks back with a serious dose of incredulity that those were really the Olympics and that was really him.
“Still kind of unbelievable to think it really happened, and to think of all that came afterward as a result,” he says. “I mean, being in the Olympics really did sort of bring me into the light. It opened my eyes to the world in general, and to all that is out there.”
If not for his participation in the Games, it’s possible that Sanborn never would have become Jason Cross.
Jason Cross is the character Sanborn played in the three "High School Musical" movies Disney released in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He’s the lovable, intellectually-challenged, basketball-playing jock who provides comic relief for Troy Bolton, the star character played by Zac Efron.
As fate would have it, Kenny Ortega, the director of all three "High School Musical" movies, was the same Kenny Ortega who directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Salt Lake Olympics.
“I’m not saying that’s why I got the part,” says Sanborn, smiling. “But I’m not saying it hurt my chances, either.”
It was his skating ability that first caught the eye of the Olympic organizers in the late summer of 2001. He’d gone to the Steiner Ice Rink at the University of Utah with his youth hockey team, the Utah Stars, to audition for parts as skaters in the opening ceremony. Shortly after that, he was asked to come back to the rink, alone.
At that second audition he found himself surrounded by about 40 figure skaters. “I was the only one with hockey skates on. I was convinced I was in the wrong spot.”
Eventually, he was summoned to the center of the rink with two figure skaters. For an hour they skated in front of a panel of observers.
“Hockey players have a very quick cut turn that we do. It’s not like a figure skater when they’re spinning. They had me do that turn over and over and I really didn’t understand why. But that’s what caught their eye. It’s what they wanted. That’s really the main reason they picked me.”
Sanborn was taken into a room with Ortega, Mitt Romney and several other members of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
“We want you to be our Child of Light,” they told him.
For the next six months he practiced nearly every day, four or five hours at a time. “I got to miss a lot of school,” he says, wistfully. So did his sister, Danielle, who was 9 at the time. She was drafted into the ceremonies as a dancer.
Sanborn’s parents, Jeff and Florence, signed on as Olympic volunteers as well as fulltime chauffeurs for the Child of Light and his sister.
“It was our family life,” remembers Danielle. “We loved it.”
“The best part was all the people I got to meet,” Sanborn said.
One day, Ortega told him the rock group KISS was in the stadium to rehearse. Would he like to meet them?
“I was like, 'Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?' They came out of costume and they were scarier out of costume than they were in costume. But they were so nice. Gene Simmons was one of the most polite guys I’ve ever met. He tried very hard not to scare me but I still kinda got scared.
“That was my favorite thing, meeting everyone; getting to hang out with people like Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton, figure skaters who participated in the Olympics but were competitors in previous Olympics,” he said.
Prior to the Olympics, Sanborn had landed acting parts in the television shows “Touched by an Angel” and “Everwood” that were filmed in Utah. After he was finished with his role as Child of Light, he went to work on the three “High School Musical” movies that were filmed in Utah. Those rehearsals kept him busy for three more years. His growing-up years were not idle.
As with the Olympics, his natural athleticism got him into the movies. Also as with the Olympics, it was the people who made it all so memorable.
“Just an awesome experience,” he recounts, “and the same thing as the Olympics, the thing I loved most was the people I met. The first time me, Zac (Efron), Corbin (Bleu) and Chris (Warren) sat down, it just clicked. We just knew we were going to be friends.”
Eventually, he plans to finish his degree in film production and work again in the movies.
“I’d like to be on the other side of the camera this time, whether it’s director, sound tech, cameraman, whatever, just film production in general,” he says. “That’s appealing to me. I’ve had plenty of time out in front.”