No doubt about it, Raynard Packard is an athlete. The evidence hangs on his office wall in the form of colorful medals from Ironman competitions and marathons from all over the world.
Some might say his determination to be the best runner, bicyclist and swimmer he can be is summed up in the traditional Olympic motto: Swifter. Higher. Stronger. But when Packard, 39, of Akron picks up his torch to help relay the Olympic flame through Akron on Wednesday, his athleticism is the least of the things he will be celebrating.
Packard’s most important medal is the one he wears on his soul. It proclaims his victory over years of alcohol and other drug addiction. In many ways, Packard sees the torch relay as a metaphor for his life.
His torch will carry the motto adopted by the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee: Light the Fire Within.
“It speaks to the athletes, of course, but to me, it speaks of a human courage,” Packard said, “That’s what recovery is all about.”
The act of torchbearers passing the flame is symbolic as well.
After Packard slew his addictions, he earned a master’s degree in counseling. As a counselor with the Akron Health Department, he helps youths battle the same demons that haunted him. The symbolism is complete with the act of running; a passion that Packard adopted in his 30’s and credits with giving him the confidence to climb out of his personal hell. “Running has brought an enormous amount of healing into my journey,” he said. Packard wasn’t an athlete as a child. While growing up in Akron and later Los Angeles, he said, the only running he ever did “was from the cops.”
“I was a wild, purple-haired, rockin’, rollin’ misfit kid,” he said. He was in his early teens when he started experimenting with drugs, a commodity that was easy enough to obtain in the house. “I came from a childhood of poverty and addiction and great struggle,” Packard said, noting that both of his parents are also in recovery. At the age of 22, he wanted desperately to turn his life around. He joined the Army and became a paratrooper. “I wanted to do something with tremendous dignity. I needed to restore honor to my life,” he said. But his addiction was always just under the surface. He left the 18th Airborne Corps and became a member of the Army Reserves, but was booted out in 1990 for drinking.
At the age of 29, he hit rock bottom. “That’s when I decided I couldn’t live in a godless world anymore,” he said. In 1992, he checked himself into the veteran’s hospital in Brecksville. That’s when he added a new holiday to his personal calendar: his sobriety birthday, August 1. “Like everyone else, I’ve had good days and bad days since,” he said. But mostly good. Because of the importance that running played in his life, Packard tries to inspire his young charges to walk the same path. The children he counsels, from ages 13 to 18, are mostly substance abusers referred from the court system. He launched a program that teams up the youths with area runners who are willing to spend a few Saturdays being a trainer/mentor. The final goal is for the youth to compete in a local race, at which point he or she will receive a new pair of running shoes. “When you come across the finish line,” Packard said, “It’s a form of empowerment that can translate to other areas of life.”
Ron Zumpano, Packard’s boss, who nominated him for the torch relay, said the running-shoes program helps kids, “Experience the feeling of accomplishing something that they probably didn’t think they could do. That’s what the Olympic Spirit is about: exciting people and turning them on to what they can be, what they can achieve,” said Zumpano, director of the health department’s counseling services and alcoholism division. “Raynard reflects that same spirit, not just as an athlete, but as a human being,” Zumpano said.
Packard said sometimes he looks back at his life and is mystified by his journey. “It wasn’t in the first draft,” he says of his recovery and success as a counselor. But Packard, who also took graduate studies at the Ashland Theological Seminary, said his spiritualism helps him understand how to use what he has lived through to benefit others.
And that’s why he will dedicate his leg of the run to Julian P. O’Neill, a marathon runner, a “gentle spirit” and a mentor to Packard. O’Neill, who died in September, taught many in recovery how to “light the fire within,” Packard said, “And by extension, I’m trying to pass it on.”
(The above story was first published in 2001. Raynard would then go on to get his doctorate in Clinical Psychology, and in 2008 he founded a non-profit helping thousands of young souls find new beginnings in recovery.)