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Lorri Coppola Proudly Carries Olympic Torch in San Francisco

By: Gary Wosk
Lorri Coppola carries the Olympic Torch Photo: Chris Nishimura

Even tens of thousands of protestors could not stop Lorri Coppola, who was diagnosed with  ALS in 2005, from fulfilling her lifelong dream yesterday in San Francisco of carrying the Olympic Torch. She also wanted to honor all of those who are battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Coppola, active with The ALS Association’s Greater Bay Area Chapter, was somewhat concerned that demonstrators expected to gather along a 6-mile portion of the city’s waterfront − later shortened to 3-l/2-miles by law enforcement officials − to protest China’s actions in Tibet, might get in the way.  

“They are doing it [protesting] in free countries because they know what might happen should they try to protest in China," the 67-year-old Coppola wrote. “I am concerned about my safety as I am not as strong as others due to ALS. People have the right to protest, to make their voices heard, to speak up for the freedom of oppressed people. But those who damage property or endanger people are diluting their message. Violence is just as bad as the human rights violations they are protesting.”

A mountain or even an earthquake could not prevent Coppola from race-walking to increase the public’s awareness of ALS. She, along with the other 79 torchbearers, emerged jubilant and victorious.

“Her commitment to living every day as fully as she can is an inspiration to the entire community,” said Linda M. de Mello, the chapter’s executive director who recalled that Coppola traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to participate in The Association’s National ALS Advocacy Day and Public Policy Conference to meet with members of Congress and discuss what it is like to be single and live with ALS.

“Everyday she works towards doing whatever she can for other people and to stay active even though she is facing these huge odds,” de Mello continued.

In the days leading up to the event, Coppola, a resident of Greenbrae, Calif., asked the many people who came to cheer her on to display messages that read: “Strike Out ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And she added: If you feel artistic, put a baseball or bat on it.”

“Because of my ALS, carrying the Olympic torch is a dream come true. Increasing the public's awareness about ALS and support for neurological research and effective treatments are critical,” Coppola said. 

Her inspiring story was reported earlier by ABC TV Channel 7 News and on the front pages of the Marin Independent Journal and Oakland Tribune. Although she has lost her ability to speak, Coppola communicates by writing on a computer with a voice synthesizer. Even though her lungs are weakening, her legs remain strong.

Coppola’s life has always been sports. She taught and coached track and gymnastics for 33 years at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, Calif.; produced Stanford football broadcasts in the Walsh/Elway days and other sports programs for KSFO; and won gold medals for masters race walking at the Buffalo World Games and the Nike World Games in Eugene, Ore. Even after being stricken with ALS, she still walks a mile three times a week.

She fell in love with the Olympics when she went with friends of Bruce Jenner’s wife to the 1976 games where she saw Nadia Comanici's perfect 10 in gymnastics. “I remember saying to a friend that I thought something was wrong with the sign,” Coppola said. The friend replied, ‘No it's a 10.’ I was hooked on the Olympic idea.”

Carrying the Olympic torch has always been her goal. “I am one of the lucky ones,” she said, a sentiment reminiscent of Lou Gehrig, who famously said in his farewell speech, after being diagnosed with ALS, “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Coppola was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She attended Boston University. 

* Lorri Coppola passed away in October 2008.

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