When the Olympic flame comes to town this week, a small crowd will gather to watch one particular local woman carry the torch.
Menlo Park's Molly Hale, an aikido enthusiast, was handpicked by the 2002 Olympic Committee to be one of 11,500 torchbearers nationwide. She will carry her torch exactly four-tenths of a mile at exactly 3:21 p.m. this Friday in Oakland -- in her wheelchair.
The crowd, which Hale jokingly refers to as her "fan club," will be a group of people who have watched her defy medical odds.
Hale became a quadriplegic after a car accident six-and-a-half years ago left her partially paralyzed. Doctors said her spinal cord injury was so severe it would prevent her from ever moving any part of her body below her shoulders.
"She has broken all the statistics," said Robert Kent, an aikido instructor from Menlo Park. Aikido is an ancient martial art of self-defense.
Hale credits aikido with saving her life.
"I was driving home from a weeklong martial arts conference. I fell asleep at the wheel. My car flipped over and I was pinned in the car, upside down, for an hour and a half. My spinal cord got crunched. From aikido, I knew I had to remain conscious and let blood flow through my neck or I wouldn't make it," she said. The accident occurred on Highway 280 at Black Mountain Road.
It's also because of aikido that 51-year-old Hale will carry the Olympic torch. Kent was the catalyst. "I stood up at an aikido seminar and said, 'I'm nominating Molly for a torchbearer. I'd like all of you to do that too.'"
They did. At least 50 people wrote a 100-word statement to the U.S. Olympic Committee explaining why Hale should carry the torch.
"Molly was extraordinary before the accident. She was a great athlete, a good musician and a talented architect. And now she's exactly the same person after the accident. She embodies the Olympic spirit," Kent said.
It was just last summer, six years after her accident, that Hale became a third-degree black belt. "I was the first person in a wheelchair ever to take an aikido exam," she said.
Her accomplishments have not gone unnoticed in the international martial arts community. "I was just invited to do an aikido demonstration at a convention this summer in Las Vegas. Demonstrations are usually done by seventh- or eighth-degree black belts. So this is a real honor," she said.
Even filmmakers have taken notice. An Oscar-nominated director is making a documentary on Hale and her recovery. "She has transformed an entire community of friends and colleagues," said Dorothy Fadiman, a Menlo Park filmmaker. "Her healing is a direct result of her knowledge, intention and collaboration with the community. She has said, 'Don't comfort me. Work with me.'"
Fadiman's documentary, entitled, "Step by Step: The Healing Journey of Molly Hale," will be shown Feb. 21 at Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto. It is a full-length feature film that will be screened as a work-in-progress, Fadiman said.
Kent sees Hale as an inspiration. "She's tackling the world. Now she has an opportunity to take a spot on a much larger stage. She's shown us we all have so much more potential," he said.
"My original prognosis following the accident was 'no way, Jose,'" Hale said. But she refused to believe it. Being the consummate athlete before the accident, she continues her exercise regime following the accident.
Hale goes to Community Association for Rehabilitation in Palo Alto six days a week and swims for 90-120 minutes each day.
Her hard work has paid off. "About six months ago, I was able to walk in the water. That's totally a milestone," she said.
Hale said she is "persevering joyfully. My goal is to dance on this planet."
E-mail Daryl Savage at email@example.com