Step-by-step, 34-year-old Rich Pawsat is getting in shape for his 1-kilometer run into Olympic history next month.
Pawsat, who is mentally disabled, said no, thank you, when Atlanta organizers told him he could walk his .62-mile leg as Olympic torchbearer. He plans to run it--even though he is physically awkward, even though he has never run that far before.
Pawsat, a Santa Ana resident, is among 16 Orange County "community heroes" selected to carry the Olympic flame on its cross-country route to the July 19 opening ceremonies in Atlanta. On April 28, at 2 a.m., the flame arrives in Seal Beach, where local torchbearers will begin their relay down Pacific Coast Highway toward San Clemente. The county's last torchbearer will pass the flame to San Diego runners.
"I just gotta get in shape for it," said Pawsat, a broad-shouldered man with a quick grin and boyish face. "I don't want to sweat that bad."
Soon, he will try his regular 12-minute treadmill walk with a 3-pound weight held aloft, like an Olympic torch. He is trying to shed a few pounds from his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. This weekend, for the first time, he will practice running on Foothill High School's track in Santa Ana.
And then he will run and run, until he's sure that he can run the relay just about as well as the county's other torchbearers, including former Olympian and diving champion Sammy Lee.
These days, no longer are torchbearers limited to the stereotype of the lithe, sure-footed runner, uplifting the flame with rippling muscles, Olympic officials said. This year, some of the 10,000 torchbearers nationwide will walk, use a wheelchair or ride a bicycle, carrying the 3 1/2-pound torch made of Georgia hardwood. One ill torchbearer is expected to participate via her hospital gurney.
Pawsat, who reads at a first-grade level, can't say why he chose to run the relay rather than walk.
But Pawsat, a big Dodgers and USC football fan, says he is "really proud" that it is his turn to stand before the cheering crowds and TV cameras as an athlete. Not that he minds being on the other side--as a Tustin High School senior, he was voted "Most Spirited" because he was always up on stage with the cheerleaders.
"I just want to be a celebrity," Pawsat said earnestly. "I just hope and pray I'll be on TV [news]."
As a boy, he carted around balls and bats, while his younger brother, Tim Pawsat, played Little League. When Rich was a young adult, he cheered on as Tim was NCAA doubles champion at USC in 1986.
Now his mother, Barbara Pawsat, is putting together a scrapbook of press clippings for him, to go along with his brother's.
Pawsat is starting to slowly work up to his run, the way he did when he took on other sports.
Growing up, his father, Dr. Richard Pawsat, stood a few feet away from him on a tennis court and hand fed him ball after ball. Two years later, he learned to hit his first ball over the net. Now, he is a pretty good "C"-level tennis player at his parents' club.
When he's not training, Pawsat volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club of Tustin, where he works as equipment manager. His boss, Clifford L. Polston, nominated him for a torchbearer's spot.
"He's a good example for younger kids, to let them know if you're different, that's OK," Polston said.
This week, after working out at his gym, Pawsat took a shower and then walked out of the dressing rooms with his shoes untied. He stopped at the receptionist's desk, threw his USC gym bag on a chair and leaned over the counter to talk to the receptionist.
"I'm going to be famous, Monica," he gloated.
And then he said again, more to himself: "I'm going to be famous."