Mercer Island grad carries Olympic torch, proposes on relay

Ryan Clarke, a Mercer Island High School graduate, proposed to his girlfriend, Claire Jean, after completing his leg of the Olympic torch relay last Wednesday evening, Feb. 10. Jean said yes. - Rumon Carter/Special to the Reporter
Ryan Clarke, a Mercer Island High School graduate, proposed to his girlfriend, Claire Jean, after completing his leg of the Olympic torch relay last Wednesday evening, Feb. 10. Jean said yes.
— image credit: Rumon Carter/Special to the Reporter

Ryan Clarke was one of 12,000 torchbearers to bring the live burning symbol of the 2010 Olympics on its journey of 100 days and 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) across Canada to Vancouver, British Columbia. Most likely, the former Islander and Mercer Island High School graduate was the only one bearing a diamond engagement ring in a glass Mason jar tucked in his pocket.

As the sun set last Wednesday evening after completing his portion of the torch relay along Inglewood Street in West Vancouver, Clarke knelt in the street and, while the flame was still burning, asked his girlfriend, Claire Jean, to marry him.

Jean, a varsity runner at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, had come along to support the relay and her boyfriend. Jean, wearing a 1980s Team Canada Olympics jumpsuit, moved to run alongside Clarke as his leg ended. Then Clarke dropped to one knee on the pavement as Jean, with a red-stenciled maple leaf on her cheek, stood shocked and still for a moment, her hands over her face. She quickly regained her composure to say, “Yes, yes!”

An avid runner, Clarke was the single representative from the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) and the BC Ministry. Clarke graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1997.

Now living in West Vancouver, he works for the BC Provincial Government in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games Ministry, doing international media relations and communications.

“It’s a very exciting time to be right in the mix of it all,” he said. .

“I was chosen to run based on my submission [in which I highlighted my dad’s participation in the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay] to a 2010 Torch Relay video contest.”

The Clarke family originally moved to Mercer Island from Canada in 1993. Ryan Clarke returned to Canada after high school for college and stayed.

It is not the first time when a Clarke has borne the mythical flame. Ryan’s dad, Rory Clarke, a native of Canada who still lives on Mercer Island, carried the Olympic torch up and around Capitol Hill in Seattle on its way to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“My reason [was that] I wanted to represent all those young South Africans, black and white, as South Africa was excluded from participating in the Olympics,” Rory Clarke explained. “I wanted to represent them in a small way. My wife, Barbara, did all the hard work in applying for me to run,” he added, “so it was a family affair.”

The older Clarke played semi-pro soccer while at college and has coached on Mercer Island for MIYSC since 1995, both recreational and select teams. His commitment to coaching youth soccer, he said, “is a repayment for the gift of being coached when I was a 9-year-old.”

Rory Clarke and his wife have three children. Ryan is the eldest.

Rory Clarke said that he and family members were in on the plan for the proposal, but kept it secret.

“I think she’s going to be a fabulous daughter-in-law,” he told the Province newspaper after the event.

The proposal was carefully planned.

The morning of the event, Clarke rode his bicycle up and down the street where his run was to happen later that evening. He slowed enough to mimic how long it would take to run, then when at the point where he planned to propose, he stopped and went over his lines.

“I needed to commit them to memory so that I could get through what I wanted to say without bursting out in tears,” he explained.

But what about that Mason jar?

“Claire and I have a tradition of putting ideas for trips and adventures on folded pieces of paper in little glass mason jam jars,” Clarke wrote in an e-mail. “We label them ‘Big,’ ‘Medium,’ and ‘Small,’ corresponding to the relative size of the adventure, and we pull from the ideas when we’re looking for our next adventure. With this as a running theme in our relationship, I decided that the ring just had to be in a Mason jar. So I put the ring in the ‘Big’ jar, tucked the jar in my torchbearer jacket, and ran the torch [relay] as gingerly as I could.”

The length of his run was only 328 yards long — a sprint, really. Clarke, however, had a lot to think about as he ran with the torch held high.

“It was the longest 300 meters of my life,” he said. “Talk to any other torchbearer [including my dad], and they’ll say it’s over in a flash. But because I was so intensely focused on what I was about to do, the run just seemed endless.”

He worked hard, he said to savor every moment carrying the flame and share it with the people along the route.

“The streets were lined with people, so I made sure to keep calm and live it up a bit with the crowd,” he explained.

“When I finally got to Claire, there wasn’t much time to make my move, so I grabbed her and gave her that look — the look that only a man who is hoping for the best yet at the same time fearing the worst can show — and she immediately broke into tears. I knelt down and pulled out the jar. I didn’t even need to say a word; she just knew.”

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