After a lifetime carrying a flame for the Olympics, Paul Harris gets to do it for real
Last Fall, Coca-Cola sent me a release asking if I'd sign and send it back with a photo. I was like "What?" They said that to find the 11,500 Americans to bear the Olympic torch to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games in February, they held an essay contest on how someone embodied the Olympic spirit. A friend of mine -- I still don't know who it was -- submitted an essay on how I've lived all these years with HIV, was in the first trial for AZT and have done lots of AIDS awareness work. The theme is "light the fire within." So I guess I'm a fire starter.
I've been an Olympic nut all my life. I don't care if it's the luge competition, I'll sit and watch. I remember begging my parents to let me stay up to watch Olga Korbutt compete in 1972. Have I ever cried during the Olympics? Yes, after Greg Louganis burst his head open and won the medal anyway. When he was up there on the podium and they played the national anthem, I was a blithering idiot.
My favorite part of the winter games is men's figure skating -- I'll be glued to the TV. I'm betting this year on Ilia Kulik from Russia -- he's got a little bit of everything. In women's, I'm praying for a U.S. sweep led by Michelle Kwan. I used to be a competitive skater. When you're doing it right, you can tell. It feels like flying.
I was diagnosed with GRID when I was 17. I had eight T cells, which I named after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The doctor told me to go home and be with my family because I was going to die. But I got tired of sitting on my butt watching Oprah, so I stopped AZT, felt better and went back to work. I had a few bouts after that, but today I'm undetectable with 420 T cells. I still jog, rollerblade and ice skate. I'm not one to lay down and die.
The run was fabulous! They picked up all of us runners in a minibus at Walgreens, where we heard each other's stories. I was nervous because I didn't know what they thought about HIV. By the time I was done, it was like "Pass the tissues." The person I was supposed to pass the torch to had to cancel, so I got to run two slots -- a full mile pumped on adrenaline. A Russian immigrant lady who brings Jewish children here lit my torch from hers. Just before I started, they said to me, "Paul Harris, in a moment you will be the only person on the face of the planet with the Olympic flame in your hand." Cool, huh?
I got to wear my red ribbon -- I unzipped my windbreaker just enough for it to show on the T-shirt. So even though it was 85 degrees, I layered. The committee says no adornments, but by that point, nobody would have stopped me if I had put a big red ribbon on my head.