This small town at the end of the road has been getting its fair share of coverage lately. Or maybe more than its fair share. First it was Tofino’s Peter Devries winning the O’Neill Cold Water Classic at his home beach, and the next day it was the Olympic Torch Relay showing up on its way to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Devries is a Canadian hero these days—the story of his win has been all over the national news—but the Torch Relay is a cool little story in its own right. The Relay is taking some unusual modes of transportation on its trip across Canada, and now surfboards have assumed their place on a list that includes canoes, tractors, snowmobiles and dogsleds. Call it yet another sign of surfing becoming part of Canadian culture—if you’re on par with snowmobiles up here, you know you’ve arrived.
It was Devries who was getting most of the media attention last week, but it was local legend Raph Bruhwiler who got the first call to take the Olympic flame out into the lineup. “The organizers called and asked me if I thought I could surf with it,” he said, “so three weeks ago we did a trial run and it worked perfect. They were super stoked and really wanted to do it.”
In case you’re not up on the obscurities of Olympic history, the Relay has historically transported the Olympic flame from its home in Greece to the host city of the Games. The flame is supposed to symbolize peace, brotherhood and friendship, but the origin of the Torch Relay itself is a bit fuzzy. The Vancouver 2010 website vaguely states that the custom was “derived from ceremonies once a part of the ancient games,” but Wikipedia claims the Relay doesn’t have any ancient precedent at all. The first running of the Relay was at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and those Games didn’t exactly embody the peaceful spirit that the Olympics are supposed to espouse.
The Relay has evolved since then, though, and it’s now seen as a civic honor to carry the torch. As far as surfing is concerned, it’s not a logistically easy thing to do: getting to your feet while holding a burning, three-foot-long hunk of metal; so Bruhwiler had an assistant as he took the flame from Ruth Sadler, the 72-year-old matriarch of one of Tofino’s original surfing families.
If you’re on par with snowmobiles up here, you know you’ve arrived.
“Basically I just paddled out on a soft top,” Bruhwiler explained, “and the guy who was helping had the torch and turned on the gas. I was catching whitewash, so I lined it up and grabbed the torch from him. You just have to touch your torch to the other one to light it. We did it on the first try, but the second try worked better and I rode all the way to the beach with the torch. They told me to make sure that the flame didn’t go out, so I kinda felt the pressure. I was definitely thinking that I better not fall.”
Bruhwiler isn’t the first prominent surfer to carry the Olympic flame—Jessi Miley-Dyer carried it as a grom before the Sydney Olympics in 2000—but he’s probably the first one to actually ride a wave with it. He now has his name on a pretty heavy list of torchbearers that includes Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong and Superman himself, Christopher Reeve.
Devries, fresh off his WQS win, also got a crack at carrying the torch. “I got a call midway through the day,” he said, “and they told me they had an opening. I got on the bus with all the other torchbearers, and then I ran with the flame from Live to Surf to Tin Wis. It was an interesting experience. It was something that I’ll probably never get a chance to do again. There were a lot of cops, which was pretty weird, but they’ve had protests and riots in some places because of how much the Olympics are costing. The best thing for me was that the mayor of Tofino asked me to go up on stage afterwards, and the crowd was just going crazy. That was an honor for sure.”
It’s probably going to be a long time before surfing shows up in the Olympics beside important sports like curling, biathlon and table tennis, but it’s pretty neat to know that the flame that will light up the Vancouver Olympics has been where so many of us Canadian surfers started out—sliding along on an inside wave at Long Beach. You gotta think that the Duke, with his five Olympic medals, would’ve been proud.