Harris, Peabody reflect on running the Olympic flamePublished 12:01am Saturday, July 28, 2012
NATCHEZ — Their bond began with tennis, but little did Jeanie Peabody and Henry Harris know they would one day have something else in common.
Both are from Natchez, and both have given tennis instructions to many locals. And in 1996, they both had the chance to add “Olympic flame bearer” to their resumes.
Harris and Peabody both had the chance to run the Olympic flame leading up to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Harris ran the flame through Columbus, while Peabody carried the torch through New Orleans.
Peabody recalls waking up early the morning of May 25, 1996, in New Orleans in anticipation of her run with the Flame.
“For me, it was just awesome,” Peabody recalled. “I had watched and seen the Olympics for a long time, and to be there, it was exciting, just plain exciting. I had always admired the athletes that made it to the Olympics, who worked and gave up so much to be eligible.”
That excitement got to be a little much during the run, though.
“I was so excited that I was out of breath halfway (through my route),” Peabody said. “I said, ‘What’s going on, I’ve been running all my life?’ I just had all these emotions. It was only a half a mile, though, so it wasn’t exhausting.”
After her run was over, Peabody said she was happy to interact with the fans who were at the end of her trail.
“I was delighted that I made it,” Peabody said. “There was no letdown after that. It was such a high. A crowd wanted to come and see (the torch), and I had no problem passing it around.”
Harris’ afternoon running the torch in Columbus was a little more hectic. In fact, Harris didn’t even know what was going on at first.
“I was on the bus thinking, ‘I’m going to watch the torch go by,’” Harris said. “After they told us, I was thinking, ‘OK, what will I do with my kids? I can’t do this.’”
Fortunately, one of Harris’ former tennis students, Lillian Watson, as well as Harris’ father and uncle, had made the trip, and Harris was able to let them watch over his children while Harris ran his route.
Harris actually had to run back and meet the previous runner halfway down her path, since the other runner was unable to make it the whole way.
“She was an older lady, and she said she couldn’t run any farther,” Harris said. “I had to go back and get the flame. I ran it the rest of her route and my route, then I gave it to the mayor of Columbus.”
Even 16 years later, Harris said he remembers the feeling of watching all the fans line up along the street, clapping and cheering as he ran past with the flame.
“You got goose bumps,” Harris said.
Harris also said he had a couple of escorts with him as he ran with the torch.
“I had some big old state troopers, two of them beside me,” Harris said. “They wouldn’t let anyone get close to us.”
Peabody joked about the fact that she didn’t have a police escort when she ran.
“Well, hello, what happened me? I wasn’t that important,” Peabody joked.
Harris said after the experience that he had a new appreciation for the Olympic flame.
“I had no idea what it was about (beforehand),” Harris said. “I hadn’t paid attention to the torch run. Now I watch it go from place to place whenever it’s on TV.”
Peabody said running the torch was a humbling experience for her.
“It was such a tremendous honor, the entire process of carrying the torch and flame,” Peabody said.
It was even more of an honor considering that Harris and Peabody were two out of 10,000 chosen to run with the flame. The Coca-Cola Company sponsored the run, and the two of them had to be nominated by someone else to participate.
Peabody said Charlotte, Katie and Lisa Woods, former tennis students of Peabody, were the ones who recommended her.
“I didn’t know for a long time who sent it in,” Peabody said. “It was about four years later when I found out.”
Like Peabody, Harris said it was four years later when he finally found out that a former tennis student recommended Harris run with the flame.
“Apparently I was someone important in some person’s life who was high up in the Coca-Cola Company,” Harris said. “God put me in the right place at the right time. I was a blessed person for someone to recommend me.”
Adding to her special experience in summer 1996 was Peabody trip to Atlanta for the Summer Paralympics. Peabody formed a paralympic tennis team in Natchez, and watching the athletes compete was an incredibly touching experience, she said.
“When you went to watch the swim competition, they didn’t cheer the loudest for the person who won,” Peabody said. “They cheered the loudest for the last person who finished. That gave me goose bumps.”
Harris met Peabody in 1974 when Peabody was the tennis coach for Trinity Episcopal. Someone had recommended Harris coach tennis, and being relatively new to the sport as a player, Harris said he needed some guidance.
“I was a policeman, and I would come by (Duncan Park) and see her teaching (tennis),” Harris said. “I always tell people that I learned how to teach the game by watching her.”
With 10,000 people running the flame in 1996, Harris said it was an honor for he and Peabody to represent Natchez to the world.
“Of all the places to choose people from, we had two from Natchez. You have to be coming here to get here,” Harris joked.
If there’s anyone she would want to share the experience with, Peabody said she was glad it ended up being Harris.
“I was excited and proud that we were doing it together,” Peabody said.