Yesterday two members of the UCSB community represented themselves, their university and their country as they served as torchbearers in the Olympic Torch Relay.
Dramatic arts professor Catherine Cole and sophomore dramatic arts major Geren Piltz were among 11,500 people chosen to carry the Winter Olympics 2002 torch out of 210,000 people nominated. Torchbearers are nominated by friends and family and are chosen through a nationwide selection process conducted by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Coca-Cola and Chevrolet. It is a tremendous honor to be a torchbearer and those who are chosen are selected for their compelling stories, accomplishments and overall dedication to the Olympic spirit.
The Olympic Torch relay was designed by Dr. Carl Diem in 1936 when the Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Since then, every two years, the Olympic torch is carried from Athens, Greece to the Olympic cauldron, located at the site where the games will be held. By the end of its journey, this year’s torch will have passed through 13,500 miles and 46 states to Salt Lake City this winter.
Cole has endured a tremendous journey through recovery after having her left leg amputated last year because of damage done to the tissue during surgery and radiation to remove a tumor in her leg. While in the hospital, friends gave her notebooks to record her experiences, which she used to write her first play, “Out on a Limb.” Piltz, at the age of 19, has done everything from helping raise and send money to Kosovo to volunteering with the Dream Foundation, granting wishes to older adults with terminal illnesses. Their stories, like the stories of other torchbearers , are incredibly inspiring.
Another thing Cole and Piltz have in common is their interest in the stage. According to Piltz, he has been acting since he was four or five years old. His list of performances is long and extensive, and includes some of the most popular musicals and operas. His love of theater encouraged him to do such work as volunteering with the Santa Barbara Zoo Educational Theater’s Access Theater, which gives disabled students the opportunity to star in their own shows, and Next Generation Theater Company in Carpinteria.
“I’m not an actor but I happen to have an acting career,” said Piltz. “There is a certain magic you have to keep alive in everything you do,” Piltz said when discussing how much he enjoys being a volunteer and an actor. More than once, he equated himself to Harold Hill from the musical “The Music Man,” a dynamic character that comes to town, makes a difference and then mysteriously disappears.
Cole was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Since she was young she has had a strong passion for drama. “I’ve been performing all my life,” she said, “I’ve just always known it was what I wanted to do.”
After attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, Cole moved to New York to pursue a career in theater. After some success, she moved to Chicago where she attended the Northwestern University Graduate School and earned her Ph.D. She joined the dramatic arts staff at UCSB in 1997 and mainly teaches dramatic literature.
In addition to being a professor, Cole is an author, director and playwright. Her book, Ghana’s Concert Party Theater, is about African dance and was published in 2001. Her first play “Out on a Limb,” is based on the journals she kept about her experience of battling cancer and losing her leg. The play debuted in February of last year and received rave reviews.
Piltz grew up in Carpinteria in a loving family with his mother, father and brother. When he was younger Piltz, dabbled in music, playing the guitar, trumpet and piano. He loved to swim but his passion was acting. In high school he was involved in the liberal arts competition Odyssey of the Mind, which helped him develop and sharpen his creativity. He also served as a student member of the school board.
“I really loved growing up in Carpinteria because of the small-town feel,” he said.
During his senior year, Piltz won the Junior Carpinterian of the Year Award for his achievements in school, his volunteer work and overall personality. Also as a result of his volunteer work and community involvement, Piltz received numerous college scholarships including a grant from Coca-Cola, which sent him to Atlanta for one week. In Atlanta, Piltz, along with other students like himself, helped clean and fix up an elementary school.
Piltz has dedicated countless hours to such volunteer organizations as Native Sons of the Golden West and Direct Relief International. He has also participated in the Disneyland Candlelight Processional and the Dream Foundation.
“I don’t need a pat on the back,” he said. “I’m not out to change the world, but if the world happens to be changed by something that I do, great.”
For the last five years Piltz has dressed as the avocado at the Carpinteria Avocado Festival. “It is one of the most rewarding things I have done. I get to dance with people, give them hugs and just make them smile,” he said. With the Dream Foundation, Piltz served as program coordinator for Flower and Power, a program that buys and donates flowers to people with life-threatening illnesses.
“I really loved just sitting and getting to know the people we brought flowers to. Some of their stories were so amazing … the things they had to go through,” he said. “It makes me wonder, am I really worthy enough to receive the honor of being a torchbearer? What did I do that was out of the norm? All I did was be nice to people and I had fun doing it.”
Cole’s struggle with cancer began after giving birth to her now three-year-old son Aaron in 1998. She began to notice something different and bothersome about her left leg.
“At first my leg looked really muscular and I thought it had something to do with the changes a woman’s body go through after giving birth,” she said.
After having an MRI, her doctors discovered a sarcoma, a cancerous tumor in the soft tissue of her leg. Sarcomas are a very uncommon cancer, representing less than 1% of new cancer cases each year. Cole underwent surgery and radiation to remove the tumor. The surgery was successful but as a result, much of the tissue in her leg was deadened. She had to undergo another surgery to remove the dead tissue.
In April of 2000, Cole fractured the same leg while washing her son’s hands in the sink. Twenty-two centimeters of the bone in her leg were dead. After two years of treatment and surgery, Cole made the difficult decision to have her leg amputated. “We just couldn’t fight the infection,” she said.
Over the last year, she’s been undergoing physical therapy to learn how to walk with a prosthesis.
“I have to be very ‘dancerly’ to get around,” she said. “It is very extreme and very difficult to operate a prosthesis.”
As proof of her dedication to not letting her prosthesis get in the way of her career, in fall of this year, Cole became a dancer on stage. She starred in the show, “Pirouette,” which explored the beauty and capabilities of dancing with just one leg. She was nominated to carry the torch by good friend and physical therapist Sheryl King.
“I had no idea who nominated me. I went to my physical therapist after finding out and I said, ‘Okay, we really have to work on my walking,’ then she told me that she was the one who nominated me.”
Cole is began her portion of the relay at Solvang and said she looked forward to carrying the Olympic torch and sees it as a very symbolic and meaningful honor.
“I really see this as crossing the finish line,” she said. “… After my surgery the doctors told me I would never walk again. I’m not going to run the relay, but I’m going to walk … I walk because of the support of friends and family. This experience has really shown me how interdependent people are.”
Despite the fact that he didn’t run in his hometown of Carpinteria, Piltz began his relay in Oxnard and said he was really excited about the run.
“I think it’s interesting that a sporting event would put so much effort into finding and honoring people by having them carry the torch. It’s a good way to get everyone involved,” he said. “The stories of the people who are running are the true spirit of the Olympics.”
Both Cole and Piltz are fine representatives of hard work endured and deserve the honor a torchbearer receives.
“We really don’t know who we are as human beings until we’re put to the test,” Cole said. “People shouldn’t limit themselves; if they want to do something, nothing should stand in their way.”