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Padecky: Santa Rosa's Tom Francois knows what the Olympic torch represents

It very well could be the only thing about the modern Olympic Games that has never found itself embroiled in controversy. No one who has ever carried the Olympic torch has been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, even the Russians who held it at Sochi. No torch bearer has been accused of cheating - like running an extra 100 feet. No torch bearer has dropped it and set even a garbage can on fire.

The Olympic torch has been carried by camel, boat, zipline and dogsled. It has been carried to the top of Mount Everest, been to outer space and even made its way underwater. Yet none of this launched an investigation. Its overriding consistency: an ideal so pure it raises gooseflesh.

Tom Francois has that gooseflesh right now. The Rio Olympic torch has completed its 85,000-mile serpentine journey to Brazil and Francois is well aware of its existence and import. Francois carried the Olympic Torch Jan. 18, 2002, a little jaunt in San Jose as the torch was making its way to Salt Lake City and the Winter Olympics.

“Carrying the torch was like riding a white puffy cloud with no turbulence,” said Francois, a Santa Rosa resident for 10 years and the assistant baseball coach at Santa Rosa Junior College for the last seven.

For the Salt Lake City torch run, 200,000 people were nominated but only 11,500 chosen. Qualifications were a bit more involved than “Without complaint, dad takes out the garbage every Monday.” For Francois and his qualifications, we need to start at the bottom and work our way to the top.

The prosthesis is mostly black, a metal made from a composite of graphite and titanium. It begins four inches below his right knee and extends to a white running shoe. As Francois, 75, would say, it’s a whole lot of fun going through airport security.

On March 25, 2001, Francois wasn’t having a whole lot of fun. He had 12 surgeries in seven months to resolve a blood-clotting issue in his right leg. He had been in and out of - mostly in - Kaiser in Santa Clara. Cadaver veins, just about everything except a rope, were implanted in the hope of restoring not only circulation and warmth but also the prevention of clotting.

“I was in the hospital for basically 64 days,” he said. “I was confined to a wheelchair. ‘This is enough,’ I said to myself.”

The amputation brought life and perspective into clear focus for Francois. Whether he was ready for it or not, he had to make a decision.

“Some amputees are embarrassed, depressed, devastated,” Francois said. “I felt relief.”

And courage. As has become his calling card to those who meet him, Francois attacked the urge to self-pity. After a few weeks flat on his back, Francois went after it. He’d take the walker and take out the garbage, pushing the garbage cans with the apparatus. It would take him a half-hour to take out the garbage. Francois would be bathed in sweat, breathing hard.

Felt wonderful, it did. He was alive. Living at the time in the South Bay city of Campbell, Francois was a security officer for Xilinex, a computer chip company. He couldn’t go back to work but he could still show up and see his pals. He’d be in a wheelchair or a walker or using a cane and Francois would make the rounds.

I’m not dead, you see. I’m still me, guys, just a little lighter, with a little hitch in my giddy-up is all.

His presence did not go unnoticed.

In June 2001 Ann Duft, the company’s public relations director, wanted to nominate Francois as an Olympic torch bearer, as the flame would pass through San Jose. He was accepted in July. In November his uniform arrived. His assignment: Run two-tenths of a mile. His obstacle: Two days before he was supposed to carry the torch, his new prosthesis “felt like stepping on a tack every time I took a step. Every step I was grinding my teeth.”

Of course Francois did his two-tenths. Of course. Even ran the last 100 feet. “I don’t remember the walking and running,” he said. But he does remember what he did after he passed the flame. He lifted up his jogging suit’s right pant leg, pointed to his prosthesis and pounded it. The crowd went nuts.

Not all Olympic events are on a track or in a pool or on a court. Not all Olympic events have a medal as a reward. Francois’ Olympic event, you could argue, took as much discipline, willpower and courage as any other. Anybody young with all their limbs can find two-tenths of a mile as challenging as an eye blink. But to be 60 years old with half of your right leg amputated just 10 months in the past, Francois was carrying more than the torch that day.

“I did that for every amputee out there,” Francois said. “You can miss your hand or leg or arm and get a prosthesis. But for an amputeed spirit - there’s no prosthesis for that.”

It should come as no surprise that Francois has done a lot of speaking on the subject. Francois has spoken to church groups, service clubs, chambers of commerce, incarcerated individuals, elementary and high schools. Oh, and there’s SRJC.

“Tom is so comfortable in his own skin,” said Jonathan Nadale, SRJC’s pitching coach. “Everybody is so drawn to him because he embraces life. Tom reaches inside you to bring out the best in you. And you let him because you trust him.”

Complaining is as much a part of baseball as the bunt to move a runner over. Such whining, however, has a short shelf life at SRJC.

“You have a tendency not to feel sorry for yourself when you’re around Tom,” Nadale said.

Tom Francois is the pause that refreshes. The players don’t know about all the blisters and the infections and the pain and a stabilizing sock that bunches to a cramping ache. The players don’t know that Francois’ goal once was to stand just for one minute on his first prosthesis before collapsing.

“I have been given the gift of amputation,” he said.

Yes, someone who carried the Olympic torch would say that. Yes they would.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

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