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Local man carries Olympic torch
Experience fans flames of service
Torch WEB
Gerry Brown of Forsyth County recently carried the Olympic torch in England. He was chosen because of his community service work. - photo by Autumn Vetter

Photographer a veteran of many torch relays

While Gerry Brown ran the Olympic torch for a quarter mile through Winchester, England, another Forsyth County resident was a few feet away snapping photos.

Michael Pugh covered Brown’s run from a special press vehicle called “Media 1.” For Pugh, it was his eighth Olympic Torch Relay as a professional photographer for Coca-Cola.

This year, he shot days 52 through 54 — the cities near Oxford where the 22 American torchbearers selected by Coke ran.

He first photographed the relay in 1992 at Barcelona, which was Coca-Cola’s first time sponsoring torchbearers.

In 1996, he covered all 82 days of the relay leading up to the Atlanta Olympics, as well as the torch lighting ceremony in Greece.

Pugh said he’s been blessed to witness the journey so many times. It’s an event that never ceases to amaze him as ordinary people “get to witness the Olympic movement.”

“Since ’92, the feeling is uniform in every culture, in every country,” he said. “It’s the same joy, the same pride. I see tears. It’s amazing what that flame does to people. It seems to bring out the goodness in all.”

After covering hundreds of days of the relay and photographing thousands of torchbearers, Pugh said the moment of each person’s run with the flame remains unique.

“There are pictures that are generally the same — the same subject, the Olympic flame,” he said. “But you also have to take into account, this extraordinary moment is once in a lifetime, and it’s huge.”

Gerry Brown felt like a rock star, but figured the flame in his hand shone brighter to the crowd.

The quarter mile carrying the Olympic torch was over in a flash, Brown said, the minutes were like a mere moment of eyes on the golden holder.

Brown, a Forsyth County resident, carried the torch through Winchester, England, earlier this month as one of 8,000 passing the single flame.

The 70-day relay leads up to the opening ceremonies tonight.

Brown ran his leg of the route on day 54. As he got off the bus to prepare for the run, he was surrounded by adoring Olympic fans.

“Everyone wanted a picture of me with the torch or them near me with the torch,” he said.

It wasn’t lit at that point, though, because only the “kiss” passes the flame from one torchbearer to the next.

Brown had some nerves about the exchange after the briefing the previous night. “At the moment in time … you are the only person on the face of the planet that is carrying the Olympic torch flame,” he said.

But right before his scheduled torch-carrying time of 1:30 p.m., Brown heard some words of comfort. He was told: “Just enjoy your moment.”

A 12-year-old girl high-fived him during their exchange and the flame came under his watch. The experience was indescribable, he said.

He focused his time on trying to make eye contact and wave at as many bystanders as possible. His best memory came at the finish.

“My mind was just racing, but I saw Shannon [my wife] at the end at got a big grin on my face,” Brown said.

Shannon Brown said she carried a banner they’d been given that said “Gerry is a future flame.” And she had some company.

Earlier, a man had asked if she’d speak to students at a private school about why her husband had been selected. The students held the banner and shared in the couples’ moment as she filmed and yelled “That’s my husband.”

“I shut it off right after he looked at me and smiled,” she said.

Brown, an employee of relay sponsor Coca-Cola, was one of 22 selected from the company based on his community service work.

He started Because We Care, a nonprofit, and has traveled to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina for disaster relief efforts, to Peru to help an orphanage and to Brisbane, Australia, to help after Cyclone Yasi.

Due to the time constraints of working and running the organization, Brown has since given his nonprofit status to some friends for their group, Trash Water International.

A focus on service remains part of his life, though.

“It’s what I’m made to do,” he said. “It’s absolutely in my DNA. It’s what I want to do. I want to help people.”

Prior to traveling to England, Brown said his goal as a torchbearer was to spread the importance of volunteering or helping others.

“I want to be able to let people know that just because you may not have a lot of money or you may not have any time to donate to nonprofits … that you have something that you can absolutely give,” he said.

Holding that torch gave him a platform to start that conversation with people who gathered for the relay.

“This is why I was selected,” Brown would say. “But really, I want people to know we all need to be involved in these things ... If you’re not willing to put your skill and ability in, we’re going to miss out.”

He was amazed at the feats of other Americans selected by Coca-Cola, and especially the teenagers.

The group traded contact information at a dinner during his first night in England so they could share opportunities to help others.

Reading a “who’s who book” that explained why each Coke torchbearer was chosen, Brown said he wondered how he got there. He found that everyone in his company had the same feeling. And that’s when he knew why they had been picked.

“That’s why you are there. You’re humble,” Brown said. “You help people, and you don’t even think anything about it.”