Eyewitness to History: Edwards watched Ali in awe

Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron at the opening ceremonies for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

Credit: Andy Clark

Credit: Andy Clark

Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron at the opening ceremonies for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

On the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution presents a series of retrospectives produced by the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute. The Eyewitness to History interviews offer the view of someone who was at a top moment on the Summer Games.

In 1996, Olympic athletes and thousands of others relayed the Olympic torch across the United States, carrying the flame that would remain lit until the closing ceremony. Boxing great Muhammad Ali had been secretly designated to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony in Atlanta.

Ali was battling Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system affecting movement and often causing tremors. Still, he rose to the occasion in front of a worldwide audience.

Former University of Georgia basketball player Teresa Edwards watched from the front row of center stage. Two days earlier, she carried the Olympic torch for a relay leg in Athens.

The Atlanta Games were the fourth of Edwards’ five Olympic appearances, in which she won four gold medals. She had been elected to recite the Olympic oath, on behalf of all competing athletes, immediately following the lighting of the cauldron.

“The 1996 Olympics was just special all around for me because it was in Atlanta; it was in Georgia, my home state. It was a lot to take in. I was born and raised in Georgia, and I think what really let me know I was born for that moment - the opening ceremony was on my birthday.

“That little child in me was excited just to see who was going to light the cauldron. I was just sitting on the edge. So, I remember vividly. I remember being escorted down backward into the stadium. I remember standing around below that giant stage that I had to go up on after the lighting of the cauldron. I just remember being really nervous, and all of a sudden, I saw Muhammad Ali.

“I just know I saw his forehead, I saw that haircut – I can see it now, vividly – I saw the skin tone of him, the shape of that boxer’s body even in that old man’s body. As soon as I saw him, I just knew. He’s such an iconic figure.

“I just burst. That energy, the adrenaline, the excitement, oh, it just came bursting through me. And I started jumping and screaming down there and trying to be cool at the same time. But, really, nobody was watching me, so who cares? I just remember getting all that energy out screaming and somehow that was so exhilarating. For us to see someone higher than us, it was just amazing. We’ve made it to the Olympics. We’re the best in the world; to be able to look up to someone higher than you is an amazing feeling. It was one heck of a special moment. If the United States Olympic Committee ever got it right, they got it right that year – for me, and I think for everybody, for the entire world. Just the sheer willpower, just to hold the torch and to be able to do that.

“I read that his mind wasn’t shaking but his body was. But I was walking with him. I wanted him to get that thing up there. It’s like he took on everyone’s strength and we walked with him, we shook with him, we held it with him.

“It’s probably one of the most exciting Olympic opening ceremony moments in the history of my experiences. It definitely impacted my life tremendously because he was just a man of so much for everybody. He’s kind of like Martin Luther King to me - a man that wasn’t afraid to walk in the fire. Sometimes the moment goes so fast that you’re like wow, you want it to repeat itself. But it was like it just played out in a movie for me. It was very spiritual, kindred, and it was everlasting.

“When I say spiritual I knew it was a moment that God had already set into place before Muhammed Ali was born. …Because it wasn’t luck and it didn’t just happen. You had to put a lot of things together for a long time and spiritually speaking, putting a lot of things together and working and imagining yourself in greatness is a process. And to me his life was a process. It was a process of many things and how that came together and how most people would probably say he was humbled in his old age, but he was supposed to be whatever he was at that time. So spiritually speaking, even in humbleness, he was so powerful.”

DonA Traylor-Askew completed this interview as a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.

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