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Lopaka PurdyLopaka Purdy

Lopaka Purdy: The Fire Within

For years, Lopaka Purdy pursued the Olympic flame. As a volunteer at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, he discovered his own spiritual fire.

Purdy has been obsessed with the Olympic Games since he was a child. "Back in 1992, I remember lying on my grandparents' bed watching my first Olympic opening ceremony and being completely awed by it," says the senior French major who is also a competitive swimmer, rower and outrigger canoe paddler. "People from all around the world were having a good time together. When the Olympic archer shot the arrow across the stadium into the cauldron lighting the torch, the stadium erupted in cheers. I knew right then that the Olympics celebrated the best of humanity. My interest in the Olympics has grown ever since."

Purdy begin reading about the Olympics, including its rich Greek history and some of the political upheavals it has weathered. In 1996, when the Olympic torch was carried through Las Vegas where the Purdy family was living, Purdy was ready. "I was intent on seeing the torch. I got all my friends together for it. Seeing the torch just added to my own Olympic flame."

During his freshman year at Willamette, the Winter Games were held in Salt Lake City and the Olympic torch was scheduled to come to Salem. Purdy decided the occasion deserved a campus-wide celebration. "I got a bunch of friends together and pitched the idea of a Willamette Olympic Day. We got money from the President's Office and ASWU and got Papa John's to donate $300 worth of pizza. We had a big raffle with American flags and we held our own mini-Olympics on the quad."

All the activity served only to inflame Purdy's desire to attend the Utah Winter Olympics. He was chosen as a volunteer, but he couldn't afford to take an entire month off from school. Instead, he finagled free housing and used some savings and money he'd received at Christmas to buy a plane ticket to Salt Lake City and to the opening ceremonies. "It was so awesome that I'll never forget it. I wore white ski pants, a red sweater and blue jacket for the U.S. colors. The trip definitely convinced me I wanted to work someday for the International Olympic Committee [IOC] in Switzerland."

For his study abroad in his junior year, he selected Lausanne, Switzerland, home of the IOC. "I wanted to intern with the IOC. I sent them this long letter and my resume, but they were restructuring their intern program and didn't have any openings."

Undaunted, Purdy sent the Olympic organizers a request to be a volunteer at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. The Committee was interested, but said he'd have to come to Greece to interview in person.

Three months later, a letter arrived saying he'd been selected as a volunteer. He only needed to find summer housing in Athens. It wasn't an easy task. "I was blown away by how much it cost to rent a place, especially during the Olympics. It was so disheartening. After all of this, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to go to the Olympics."

He spent hours on the Internet searching for affordable housing. He tried organizing other Olympic volunteers to share housing. He combed websites and posted ads. Just when he was about to give up, two young women from Athens who planned to spend the summer in London, offered to sublet their apartment to him for $100 Euros a week.

Assigned as a press agency assistant for the Associated Press, Purdy was one of the first Olympic volunteers to arrive. "The press center opened a month before the Games began and for the first couple of weeks, we helped them set up all the computers and equipment. When the journalists arrived, we'd collect press briefings from each of the offices and call the chiefs of the different Olympic teams to gather information."

All the volunteers were able to attend the final dress rehearsal of the opening ceremonies. But, for Purdy, watching the actual ceremony on big screen television with his Greek co-workers was even more memorable. "The Greeks had been waiting for a long time for the Olympics to come home. When they sang the Greek national anthem during the opening ceremonies, my co-workers and I grabbed hands. We were all crying and singing together. It was great."

One of the perks of being a volunteer was that extra tickets were often available. "I got to see rowing, swimming and beach volleyball. I watched swimmer Michael Phelps win his first gold medal."

He also worked several nights in the VIP section of the Olympic Stadium and met dignitaries and celebrities like the royal family of Sweden, IOC President Jacque Rogge and Cherie Blair, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

When he wasn't working at the Games or watching the competition, Purdy got a taste of everyday life in Greece. "I lived on my own, did my own shopping and paid my own bills, which made me a little more mature. When I'd come home from work, these two old Greek guys in their 80s, Yanni and John, would be sitting in the courtyard talking, eating and drinking beer. They didn't speak any English, but they'd always insist I join them. John kept finches and was building this big birdcage. He'd show me the progress he'd made on it. We communicated with smiles and nods. It's one of my best memories."

Purdy 's six-weeks at the Olympic Games ended all too quickly. "I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the closing ceremony and it was the perfect way to end a perfect summer. The theme was Greek culture - Greek food, Greek dancing, Greek singing. I'd learned a little Greek dance and we spent the whole time dancing. Being surrounded by all these new friends watching the closing ceremonies was incredible."

After such a positive Olympic experience, Purdy would seem destined to work for the International Olympic Committee. But the experience opened him to an even larger world. "The Olympics made me realize how much there is to experience in the world and how many doors I can open," he says smiling broadly. He's been accepted to teach English for a year in Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. "It's made me want to work abroad and help people on a global level."

Even more surprising is that his Olympic adventure ignited an inner flame. "I have a personal sense of my own spirituality that I didn't have before. My friends have noticed that I'm quieter, a little more reflective. My spirituality is not about religion, but about my relationship with God. It's become an everyday thing that influences everything I do. It's made me thankful for my life and for all the opportunities I have. Now I know how important it all is, even the little things."