CULLOWHEE – Some people use soap and water to clean the glass crown on their used Olympic torches, but not Western Carolina University faculty member Gibbs Knotts. He plans to keep his just the way it is – covered with soot.
Knotts, assistant professor in WCU’s department of political science and public affairs, now has an official Olympic torch in his Sylva home as a permanent reminder of Wednesday, Dec. 5, when he joined six other area residents in running the Olympic flame through Asheville, one leg of the flame’s journey across 46 states from Atlanta, home of the 1996 Summer Olympics, to Salt Lake City, Utah, where the winter games will be held in February.
Knotts would not have had an opportunity to carry the torch if it had not been for his wife, Stacy, who nominated him to be a torchbearer without his knowledge. A total of 11,500 torchbearers across the nation, all with inspirational stories to tell, were chosen for the honor out of 210,000 nominees. The nationwide selection process was conducted by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and torch relay sponsors Chevrolet and Coca-Cola.
Arriving home from work one day last August, Knotts found a strange package had arrived in the mail – from the Olympic organizing committee – informing him that he had been picked to help carry the flame. His wife had nominated him because of the obstacles he overcame following a vehicle accident in May 2000.
Shortly after joining the WCU faculty, Knotts and his brother were traveling from Cullowhee to Atlanta when they were involved in a head-on collision. Knotts, a track and cross country state champion at his high school in Georgia, and member of the 1992 ACC championship track team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his knee.
“Running had always been a big part of my life, and I continued to run after college, though not competitively,” Knotts said.
Knotts went through six months of rehabilitation, and eight months after surgery was able to run again, but he has had to forget about running marathons. “My knee is still stiff and some of the muscles are not as strong as they were before the accident, but I am very happy to be alive, and I know the accident could have been much worse,” he said.
Knotts said he was not too nervous, but felt “very humbled and very honored” as he rode in a support bus on Dec. 5, waiting for his turn to carry the flame along U.S. 25 south of Asheville.
Dressed in an official torchbearer uniform and surrounded by support runners and vehicles, Knotts ran his .2-mile of the course. Then he passed on the flame to a special guest torchbearer, NASCAR race driver Kyle Petty.
“It was so exciting!” Knotts said of his time carrying the flame. “I can’t believe so many people lined Hendersonville Road to see the torch. People came out of offices and schools. I was just trying to hold the torch up high and remember to wave.”
Knotts said his run was in honor of police officers and firefighters in Asheville, for whom he has found a new appreciation after the terrorist attacks. He teaches many Asheville Police Department staff members who are enrolled in WCU’s master’s degree program in public affairs.
Knotts said he also was running in honor of Charles Stevens, former chair of WCU’s political science department, who died recently.
All the torchbearers taking part in the Atlanta to Salt Lake City relay can buy the torch they carried as a keepsake, and Knotts did. The flame, which represents the Olympic athletes’ passion for competition and victory, is the only part of it that changes hands as the relay moves across the country.