Keeping the Flame Lit

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My friend Kylan Nieh spent much of his childhood dreaming of entering the Olympics with the U.S. men’s gymnastics team. When I met him through a technology program in high school, he had already been competing against current national team members for eight years but had suffered a serious elbow injury. His dreams of competing in the London Olympics were dashed, but as fate would have it, he ended up going anyway.

Kylan, a junior, was one of 22 Americans singled out for their civic leadership by the Coca-Cola company and given the opportunity to be a torchbearer.

Currently studying business administration and computer science, Kylan is the regional coordinator of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and president of Nestle’s Very Best in Youth Foundation. He also founded two nonprofit organizations before attending UC Berkeley and was valedictorian and student body president at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, California.

I admit that I felt a bit envious when he told me he sat down for a group dinner in London this summer with his parents and two-time figure skating Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan, another torchbearer selected by Coca-Cola. But even more surreal than meeting notable Olympians like Kwan was Kylan’s July 11 torch run through Andover, England, that granted him three minutes of fame.

He described those minutes as passing in a blur: Upon stepping off the Torchbearer shuttle bus, he took pictures with kids in the crowd, executed the “Torchbearer Kiss” (a unique ritual conducted when two torches touch) and spontaneously performed a series of flips while a security guard held his torch as the crowd chanted Kylan’s name.

“I mentally wasn’t there. It happened so fast. It really was surreal.”

What turned out to be Kylan’s first trip to Europe was less a personal achievement than an opportunity to reach out to the welcoming British locals, several of whom handed him gifts and souvenirs from their shops.

“You’re here in this city just to be part of this moment that brings the whole world together,” he said. “To be part of that history (is) something that makes me feel so honored.”

While visiting Oxford following the torch relay, Kylan offered to help walk an elderly blind woman to the bus station. Before leaving, he handed her his torch for a moment.

“You’re holding the Olympic torch right now,” he told her. She beamed.

Although he didn’t compete in a single gymnastics event, Kylan still feels triumphant, saying he learned a valuable lesson in persistence, humility and dedication to a cause. Instead of taking home a medal, Kylan has returned with an Olympic torch; its flame will probably remain lit long after the Closing Ceremony, at least figuratively.