By Don EskinsFor those who were looking forward to this year’s summer Olympics, the past two weeks have had to be somewhat disappointing.Sadly the 2020 Summer Olympics, set to begin in Tokyo on July 24, were cancelled due to the COVID-19 threat. The cancellation of this year’s summer event has especially been disappointing for the Cavern City’s J.W. Sutphin, whose fascination with the Olympics has led him to collect over 8,000 pieces of Olympic memorabilia over the past several years, memorabilia that includes pins, photos, torches and even a Harley Davidson.But besides his vast amount of memorabilia he shares a piece of Olympic historythat only a select few can own. Here’s J.W.’s story:The ‘1996 Olympic Torch Relay’While a few lucky locals might be able to say that they have attended an Olympic event, it would be rare to find somebody who could say that they’ve actually participated in one.But J.W. Sutphin can.Sutphin, who moved from Albuquerque to Carlsbad in 2016 because of its much warmer climate and is now employed at Lake Carlsbad Municipal Golf Course, SUTPHIN: From Page 1participated in the ‘1996 Olympic Torch Relay.’ The torch relay, a much-heralded prelude to an Olympic event, began its traditional journey in 1996 from Olympia, Greece, home of the world’s first Olympic competition which took place in 776 B.C. Sutphin was invited to participate in the historical event as it was making its way through the Rocky Mountains en route to Atlanta, host for the Olympics that year.“I was one of four New Mexicans selected in 1996 to participate in the ‘Olympic Torch Relay’ as a Coca Cola community hero,” said Sutphin. “The community hero program was an initiative set up by Coca Cola as a means of rewarding people for the civic work they were doing in communities around our nation. At that time, I was living and working in Albuquerque.”However, in 1996 the torch’s route didn’t run through New Mexico. So, to participate, he and the other three New Mexicans selected to represent the Land of Enchantment, would have to travel to Colorado. But getting to Colorado wouldn’t be the only hurdle Sutphin would have to cross in orderto participate. Trying times for J.W.As in most all previously held Olympics, during its modern era, the torch made its way to Atlanta in 1996 through the use of runners, bikers, trains, boats, airplanes, motorcyclists and horseback.J.W. was selected to be a runner.“I was supposed to carry the torch for about a mile through a park in Denver,” said Sutphin. “And I was really excited about getting the opportunity to do it. To get to be a part of the Olympics in any manner that year was a great feeling.”But soon after arriving in Denver he learned of a change in the relay’s plans.“There was a mix up in their scheduling,” he said. “They thought I was supposed to carry the torch through Brush, Colorado.” “Not sure what to do, they offered me an opportunity to go ahead and carry the torch for them through Brush and it didn’t take me long at all to say yes to that,” said Sutphin while reminiscing about his venture. “But I had been scheduled to run in Denver, I was there and really looking forward to doing just that.” J.W. was nowhere to be found on their schedule to run that day. But as luck would have it, they had a problem. A problem they hoped he might be able to help with.“They informed me that the person they had scheduled to run through the park hadn’t shown up,” he said. “So, they told me I could ride on their bus with them to the park. If he didn’t show up the route would be mine.”For some unknown reason, their scheduled runner didn’t show up.“For me things turned out great. I got to actually run two legs of the relay. I’m not sure how many have gotten to do that, but it was something I’ll never forget,” said Sutphin. “The first leg was great but the second leg through Brush was breath taking.I was fortunate to get to do it.”Picking up the torchSutphin took the torch for his first leg from a motorcyclist and carried it for about a mile through the Denver Park. He then handed it off, in front of a resounding crowd, to a biker who transported it on to Brush.
“There were a lot of people out to watch that day. On location was a large truck with a Big Screen television mounted on it so they could watch as we made our way through the park,” he said. “They also had an emcee aboard. I couldhear him introduce me as we approached the end of my run.”J.W.’s first leg of the relay had proven to be a most memorable one. The following day, as he made preparations for the second, he hoped that it too would prove to be just as memorable. He soonlearned that the new day wasn’t going to let him down.The final legSutphin continued to do his part in the torch’s march to Atlanta on his second leg. After receiving it from a biker he carried it for about a mile down a dirt road surrounded by farmhouses.“I had the most awesome feeling as I jogged down the dirt road holding the torch up for all to see,” he said. “There were people on the roofs of their homes and along fences waving American flags and cheering me on. It was incredible.”But as hetopped a hill overlooking the city of Brush things began to get even better.“We actually entered Brush at its rodeo grounds and there were people everywhere,” said Sutphin. “Some were sitting in stands which had been erected for the event, some were having cook outs and others playing games while they waited for the arrival of the torch.”“There was a Big Screen TV set up at the ceremonial site and I could watch myself on the screen as I headed towards a platform to light an Olympic cauldron which had been set up for the ceremony. It was really a spectacular event. I felt very proud just to have been a part of it.” Olympic aftermathWith his second leg of the relay complete Sutphin’s role in the Olympic Torch Relay was over. But the memories of being part of something so special continue to resurface for him during each Olympic summer. A summer such as this one was supposed to be.Although a pretty good softball player at one time, good enough to win nine national championships within a five year span with the Albuquerque Desperados and gain an induction into the USSSA National Softball Hall of Fame in 2018, Sutphin says that Olympic athletes compete at a much higher level. “I love to watch the Olympics, especially the way it’s presented. With so many great events it features some of the best athletes in the world,” said the New Mexico Hall of Famer. “But as with most people I’ve always known that competing at that level was something that I was never going to get to experience.”“So, for me the next best thing I could do was to find other ways to become involved with them,” he said. “Being selected to participate in the Olympic Torch Relay, as a torch bearer, was very gratifying to me. It’s something I’ll never forget.”The Olympic torch, which had initiated its odyssey in Olympia, Greece, began its trip across the United States from Los Angeles on April 27th of that year. In all it would travel some 16, 699 miles and cross forty-two states on its journey to Atlanta. There, in Atlanta, to receive the torch’s final handoff on July 19 was former Olympic Boxing Gold Medalist and Heavyweight Champion of the World Muhammad Ali, who proudly ignited the Olympic cauldron to officially mark the beginning of the 1996 Olympics.The United States’ Olympic Torch Relay team that year consisted of 12,467 torch bearers. Included in that number were 2,200 former Olympians or people somehow linked to the Olympic movement, 2,500 people who were selected through a draw and 5,500 others who had been nominated locally as community heroes.Four of those bearers were very proud New Mexicans, one of whom now hails from Carlsbad named J.W. Sutphin.