Torch returns to Calgary, Robyn Perry to the spotlight

As the Olympic torch returns to Calgary for the first time since 1988, the woman who launched the city's Winter Games more than two decades ago will be watching closely.
Robyn Perry was 12 when she lit the Olympic flame in Calgary in 1988. ((CBC))

As the Olympic torch returns to Calgary for the first time since 1988, the woman who launched the city's winter games more than two decades ago will be watching closely.

Robyn Perry was just 12 when the world saw her light a giant cauldron in McMahon Stadium, symbolically launching the Calgary Olympics.

Perry, now Robyn Ainsworth, still lives in Calgary and will somehow be involved in the torch relay in and around the city over the next three days, although she is coy about her role.

If she is chosen to hoist the torch again during its time in Calgary, she told CBC News it would be an emotional experience for her.

"I would probably be one of those people crying the entire time, just overwhelmed," she said.

Secretly selected for the role

Her role with the torch was a secret in 1988, too.

Ainsworth, a promising figure skater, was quietly selected for the key job at the opening ceremonies from among the top young winter sports athletes in southern Alberta. 

She remembers parts of that day clearly, and others not at all.

"My family and I actually took the C-Train down," she said. Her parents were whisked to special seats and she was watched over by a "fantastic lady" during the opening ceremonies.

"I can honestly say I have never seen the beginning of the '88 Olympic opening ceremonies. I have seen snippets of things, but never the full thing. And then I was just rushed out at the last minute."

Robyn Perry jogs up the stairs to the cauldron. ((CBC))

Because of the secrecy surrounding who would light the cauldron, Ainsworth only vaguely knew what was expected of her and hadn't imagined the thousands of people in the stands watching her.

"I was very lucky because everyone had the ponchos on so all I saw were designs, the Olympic rings and things like that. So I didn't see faces at all," she said.

Speedskater Cathy Priestner and downhill skier Ken Read handed her the torch, with Read telling her: "Have fun. Go for it."

Announced as a "future Olympian," Ainsworth ran smiling up the concrete stairs. Silence fell as she lit the huge caldron with her torch and then the stadium burst into cheers as the flame roared to life.

She recalls waiting to hear the sound of the Snowbirds flying overhead, which was her cue to leave.

"It was a very exciting moment. I wouldn't say I was overwhelmed as people would expect because I didn't understand the true meaning behind what I was doing," she said.

Ainsworth was so focused on not making any mistakes, she doesn't have a clear memory of the event.

"Isn't that awful?" she said. "The only thing that I really, really 100 per cent remember is walking through the back, where the rest of the performers were, at the end, and everybody cheering. I can see all of their faces still."

Stopped by strangers

Afterward, strangers would stop Ainsworth, recognizing her as the little girl who lit the torch.

"They have for years, at very odd moments, like at Superstore or something like that, and I'll be shocked."

Ainsworth, who is now 34 and runs a home health-care company, said she isn't recognized very often these days.

That might change, depending on what her role is in the current cross-Canada torch relay.

Robyn Perry shows the crowd the torch just before lighting the flame. ((CBC))

On Monday, just after 4 p.m. MT, the torch will arrive in Calgary, travelling north on Macleod Trail then looping around downtown via 17th Avenue S.W., 14 Street S.W., and Ninth Avenue S.W. before arriving at the Olympic Plaza at 7 p.m.

Musicians, dancers and Olympic athletes will be at the plaza for a free family event will run from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

On Tuesday, the torch will be taken through parts of northwest Calgary. Former Olympic speedskater Susan Auch will skate with the torch in the Olympic Oval at 9 a.m., then the relay will head to northeast and southeast Calgary before going to some of the communities outside the city. On Wednesday, it will travel through Bowness and Canada Olympic Park.

Detailed maps of the route are available on the Vancouver 2010 website.