Vernonites have earned a gold medal for their Olympic spirit.
Enthusiasm washed over Polson Park Tuesday as upwards of 5,000 people welcomed the Olympic torch relay as part of its tour across the province.
“We wanted to get into the spirit of the Olympics,” said Kieran Loughran, who along with wife Tanya, was wearing a red jacket and a red toque sporting the word Believe.
“We wanted to be down here and celebrate with everyone.”
The crowd began to form well before 11 a.m. and the surge continued to grow in anticipation of the torch arriving in the park just after 12:30 p.m.
“It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” said Tricia Cox, holding Gracie, her five-year-old daughter.
“We have to take advantage of this because we never know when it may come back.”
Mayor Wayne Lippert wasn’t surprised by the number of people who abandoned school, work or other plans to welcome the torch.
“This showed how enthusiastic Vernon is and what a tight community it is,” he said.
“What a great thing for the community.”
As one of 200 Canadian communities selected for a celebration event, Vernon’s festivities featured the giant VANOC stage show and local talent.
Among those performing were Okanagan Indian Band students singing traditional songs and members of the Turtle Mountain Hoop Dance Group.
“It was so exciting,” said Samantha Mills, one of the dancers and a student at Clarence Fulton Secondary.
Being before such a large crowd is also something Mills won’t forget any time soon.
“It was scary. It was really nervous,” she said.
The travelling Coke show also provided a visual feast, with a mix of acrobatics, dancing, drumming and giant red balls rolling off the stage and bouncing across the audience.
“This is cool,” said Erin Delaney, a Grade 5 student at Ellison Elementary, as she clapped along and waved her Canadian flag.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Images of the entertainment flashed across a giant screen and music boomed out of giant speakers. At times, the area closest to the stage resembled a mosh pit as impromptu dancing among residents just broke out.
But the excitement reached new heights as local resident Lannie Houle carried the torch through the crowd, climbed on to the stage and lit the ceremonial cauldron.
“It was so exciting, I love it,” said Houle, a 13-year-old W.L. Seaton Secondary student who was selected to light the cauldron after writing a letter to Greater Vernon’s Spirit of B.C. committee.
“It was so exciting with all of the people. It’s awesome.”
Houle is an avid hockey player and her goal is to be part of Team Canada, even as early as the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“My dream is to win gold,” she said.
Houle had her own cheering section, including Brooke Goodwater Paul, waving a sign proclaiming Go Lannie.
“It’s pretty cool that she got to carry the torch,” said Goodwater Paul, who is in Grade 6 at Alexis Park Elementary.
Planning for Tuesday’s celebration began in 2005 and Coun. Jack Gilroy was overwhelmed with the public response.
“With all of the planning, we wanted it to come here and end and now we don’t want it to end,” said Gilroy, chairman of the Spirit committee.