Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

Carry the torch

Jill Mason
Waiting for the flame
Photo: Courtesy Jill Mason

Jill Mason ’99 wanted to carry the Olympic torch in San Francisco to prove that one devastating experience wouldn’t change her attitude toward life. Then she found herself in the center of the storm.

When an anonymous posting to her Web site urged Jill Mason to make a bid to be one of the few dozen women and men to carry the Olympic torch in San Francisco this spring, Mason was flattered and surprised at the suggestion. Hundreds were applying for the honor, but she decided to give it a shot. After all, the onetime triathlete and Santa Clara lacrosse player has been putting herself in the spotlight for the past several years, speaking with high school students as part of a program called Every 15 Minutes. “Every 15 minutes is the average time in which someone is killed by a drunk driver,” Mason wrote in the essay she submitted along with her application to carry the torch. It’s a tragedy she knows all too well: On Easter morning 2004, she and her boyfriend, Alan Liu, were out for a bicycle training ride in Sonoma County when they were hit by a drunk driver. The driver, 69-year-old attorney Harvey Hereford, had been drinking vodka in his Oakmont home; he later tested nearly four times the legal limit for alcohol. Liu was killed instantly. Mason’s spinal cord was severed and she suffered a severe head injury; doctors initially expected her to remain in a permanently vegetative state. She underwent numerous surgeries, suffered long-term and short-term memory loss, and was unable to speak for months.

Although she’s still in a wheelchair, she once again bicycles using a hand-cycle, and there’s a bike trail right by her house. “It’s perfect,” she says. “Perfect.” She also lifts weights, kayaks, swims, skis, dances, and drives. Which is why she wrote that carrying the torch would “show that nobody should let one devastating experience change his attitude toward life.”

The 85,000-mile journey

When activists protesting China’s crackdown in Tibet disrupted the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in March, it was clear that the 2008 journey of the torch would not be a pre-games victory lap. The chaos surrounding torch runs through London and Paris in early April put the eyes of the world on the one stop the flame would make in North America: San Francisco. And it wasn’t lost on Mason that, in Paris, a protester had nearly wrestled the torch from the hands of wheelchair-bound Chinese fencer Jin Jing.

“I thought, You know what? If someone is so determined to snuff out this torch while I’m carrying it, then they can; I don’t care,” Mason says. “I’ve already had so much happen to me.”

So it was with a mixture of excitement and worry that Mason, with her family and friends, drove from Sacramento to San Francisco for the Olympic torch festivities. On the eve of the relay there was a reception at the Asian Art Museum with former Olympians, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and the head of Olympic security, just back from Beijing. Current San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ’89 gave a welcome address to the torchbearers; then it was time to get some rest.

The morning of April 9 the torchbearers braced themselves for a long day: There would be protesters trying to stop the torch and other protesters angry at perceived anti-China protests. Where does Mason come down in regards to the shouting?

“I think it’s really sad,” she says. “I think the Olympics are not the right place, even through they’re worldwide events, to bring politics into it. It’s about athletes. It’s about their accomplishments; it’s not about politics.”

At the end of the pre-relay breakfast, Newsom climbed onto a tabletop to offer the torchbearers some final words of encouragement. Then the other athletes got onto a bus. Accompanied by her brother, Dan, Mason headed for a wheelchair-accessible van. Where they waited. And waited.

“We sat for about two hours twiddling our thumbs,” she says, “waiting for the motorcade to make a move.”

She saw Newsom in a huddle with security. Then police motorcycles roared off down the road, flanking a bus headed for The Embarcadero. Mason’s parents and friends were there watching as protesters went after the bus. Which, it turns out, was a decoy.

Jill Mason
The torch handoff
Photo: Courtesy Jill Mason

When the bus carrying the actual torchbearers did start to roll, it headed up Van Ness Avenue, toward the Marina. The bus let runners out along the way. Somewhere in the Marina District, Mason got the word: Here’s where you’ll carry the torch.

As she was unloading, she looked up and saw a man with a black pillowcase over his head standing in front of a van just up the road. Immediately she was surrounded by a protective ring of police. The protester wasn’t violent, but he was blocking the road, so he was taken away. Mason’s brother—who also happens to be an engineer—helped organizers secure the torch to the wheelchair using a special holder and duct tape. And then there was the Olympic flame, being carried toward her. It’s a moment she says she’ll never forget.

With the lit torch at her elbow, she pushed her own chair for 50 feet, and then the two other torchbearers accompanying her began pushing her. The next thing she knew, the torch was handed off to the next set of runners. The storm moved on, leaving Mason alone with one policeman and her brother, waiting for the van to return.

In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the experience, happy at coming out unscathed, and grateful that the stretch she had to travel was flat, Mason also suddenly felt ravenous. It was already after 3 p.m., and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

The thrill of victory

Of course Mason was disappointed that her parents and friends didn’t get to see her carry the torch—or see the torch, period. They were waiting along the announced route on The Embarcadero. And in the confusion surrounding the relay, somehow Mason didn’t make it to the torch sendoff ceremony at the airport. But she is thrilled to have a souvenir torch of her own—it’s one that was used to carry the flame in San Francisco.

She is also enthusiastic about carrying on her work on behalf of Every 15 Minutes. When we spoke in early May, she was planning on giving a talk at a high school in South Sacramento the next morning. The kids, she says, always have interesting—and sometimes tough—questions.

Hereford, the driver who hit Mason, said at the time that he didn’t realize he’d hit anyone until he saw a crack in his windshield. “The thing I get all the time is: ‘He only got eight years?’” Mason says. “Even kids do not understand why he only got eight years.” He pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving, and driving on an expired license. He received the maximum sentence. But his time in prison, Mason says, has since been reduced to six years.

In addition to her talks, Mason is also working on a book about what she’s been through, and about helping others cope with life-changing events. As for carrying the torch, when Mason talks about what it means, she doesn’t wind up talking about how she needed to prove to herself she could do it.

“I just think of all the people who’ve been around me this whole time, and everything that they’ve done for me,” she says. “I really want to make them proud. It just comes down to that.”

—Steven Boyd Saum

Read a profile of Mason from the Summer 2006 SCM.

For updates from Jill Mason, visit www.jillmason.com.