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Paula Saunders: Remembering the Olympic Dream

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 30, 2012

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On a muggy summer night some 16 years ago, Paula Sanders stood with the Centennial Choir in Atlanta's 85,000-seat Olympic Stadium, feeling goosebumps rise on her arms as she sang backup to Celine Dion's "The Power of the Dream."

Editor's note: Since this article was originally published, Paula Saunders has married; her new name is Paula McGuire Turner. In 2016, she is celebrating her 30th year with Emory University Hospital, where she serves as medical social worker for the Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplant Center. She also continues to sing with the a cappella gospel group D'Vine, which has toured Rio de Janeiro three times on behalf of U.S. Embassy, presenting two- to three-week tours throughout Brazil.

As the 2012 Olympic Games unfold in London, Paula Saunders will be watching and remembering a night like no other.

As a medical social worker for Emory University Hospital's Rollins Pavilion and the bone marrow transplant program for the past 25 years, Saunders provides psychosocial counseling and support for transplant patients and their families.

But on a muggy summer night some 16 years ago, she stood with the Centennial Choir in Atlanta's 85,000-seat Olympic Stadium, feeling goosebumps rise on her arms as she sang backup to Celine Dion's stirring "The Power of the Dream" during the 1996 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony.

For years, Saunders has performed as part of a soulful a cappella gospel group D'Vine — a talented, close-knit trio whose roots stretch back to their girlhood days at Avondale High School.

By good fortune, the group won the chance to perform throughout the '96 Games at several Olympic venues and events, international exposure that would lead to performance opportunities around the globe.

Together, they've had amazing opportunities —traveling overseas with Georgia governors and top business leaders to promote economic trade, entertaining international dignitaries and diplomats, and twice performing at the White House.

But it's hard to top an Olympic performance. Saunders reminisces about her once-in-a-lifetime experience:

How was your musical group chosen to perform during the 1996 Olympics?

When they first announced that Atlanta would host the Olympics, we were writing letters all over the place trying to find a way to get in. We used to do a lot of events for the University, and someone had asked us to perform at a luncheon on campus. We usually don't accept performances when people are eating — how do you compete with food? But we accepted. When we got there, the group that had performed just before us said, "Good luck, they're eating."

We changed our repertoire to open with "The Star Spangled Banner," which made everyone stop eating and stand. As we moved through the room singing a cappella, people would just stop eating and listen. We had a lot of business cards handed to us; one was from Jeff Babcock (director and executive producer of the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival) who was handling entertainment for the Olympics. He wrote on the back of his card, "Will you be together for the ‘96 Olympics? If so give me a call." When we read that, we were literally outside on the lawn jumping up and down. From there, we were able to secure all kinds of events. From all the bookings we got from the Olympics, we earned enough to record our first CD. It was a wonderful. We were indebted to Emory forever.

What was it like to be a part of the 1996 Olympics opening ceremony?

It was just incredible — the first time I've had goosebumps from the time I entered a venue to the time I left. We did background for Celine Dion, as part of the Centennial Choir — we still have our choir robes, which we had to wear during several dress rehearsals. The television crew took clips from our dress rehearsals and put them into the live performance. Our family and friends were thrilled when they saw us.

What was the highlight of that evening for you?

I would say it was the entrance of Muhammad Ali. The identity of the person who was going to light the Olympic flame had been a big secret, so nobody knew. When he appeared, that stadium just erupted in a roar like you've never heard. There were tears, big grins, happiness and joy. But there was also that fear, wondering if he would actually be able to light it. That's when everyone really became aware that he had Parkinson's disease. We hadn't seen him in public for a long time, so at first it was cheers of joy and then the breathtaking hope that he could fulfill his responsibility — and he did it well. In that moment, all those people from all those cultures were in one accord. It was beautiful. I'll never forget it.

You also sang at other events throughout the Games?

We did a lot of patriotic music. They also wanted to hear gospel music. Sometimes, foreign journalists would ask us to sing on the spot, to make up a little jingle about the Olympics to air in their country. We discovered some skills we never thought we had!  Our voices were heard in Romania, the Netherlands and all over. Often we didn't speak the same language, but it just shows you how music can connect anybody. The international visitors liked it when we smiled. They called it "mouth full of laughter."

Will you be watching the Olympic opening ceremonies this year?

I can't wait. As I watch, I'll know that a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. But I'll also enjoy watching the athletic events. I was a discus thrower on the track team at the University of Georgia. That's what paid my way through college.

What do you find fulfilling about your work at Emory? About singing?

Most of my patients have a life-threatening illness. Usually a transplant is their last hope. I like being the person who can help normalize and stabilize their lives and help them find the support and resources to go through this life-changing experience.

And I could not even begin to imagine my life without music and delivering music, because singing gives me joy. I can look into the faces of people in the audience, whether one person or a whole arena, and see that what we're singing about touches the heart, brightens the day and helps them see things differently.