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Column: Rowing, paddling and the passing of the torch
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

Somewhere along the way in the past 15 years at this newspaper, I became the keeper of institutional knowledge. The one who remembers that big boat crash from almost a decade ago; the snowstorm that shut everything down for a week, oh, and also that ice storm; the eccentric local leaders of years past and the local titans of philanthropy; the developments that have come and the ones that never came to be. 

For most of my career, there was always someone around who had quite a few more years of knowledge than me. That’s still true, but there are a lot more folks these days who are looking to me to impart the random knowledge of Hall County that only comes with working with generations of reporters covering local news. 

But there’s also the knowledge that has been passed down. I was a child when the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, but those Games rank right at the top of important institutional knowledge around here since the paddling and rowing events were held at what’s now Lake Lanier Olympic Park on the north end of Lanier.

I’ve heard the rowing vs. paddling lecture numerous times. They are not the same, and don’t you write about anyone rowing a kayak. In a canoe and kayak you paddle, and the motion is quite different than rowing with oars. 

We’ve got a filing cabinet marked “’96 Olympics” where all the old papers from those days reside. Younger staff members have been looking through them in recent weeks as we marked the 25th anniversary. The pages are wide and the headlines big.

I’ve heard about how our newsroom was expanded around that time. Where we all sit now was once a parking deck. We were owned by Gannett at the time, and they shipped in staff members to our newsroom to help out with all the coverage.

And to hear my former boss, Keith Albertson, tell it, they all worked 21 days straight, likely fueled by bad coffee that came out of the old vending machine in the break room. 

During one big anniversary of the Olympics, I convinced him to share some of those tales, so you can actually hear it from him. He recounted in 2011 how he’d chide someone “when they work a long week, reminding them (cue the old man voice), that ‘you young punks don't know NOTHIN' 'bout long weeks. Why, back in '96, I worked 21 days straight, 14 hours a day.’"

I can now counter with the long days, weeks and months of covering COVID-19 — stories I’ll tell in the future if we can ever navigate our way out of this mess. 

But in 1996, the news to cover wasn’t a worldwide pandemic, it was all the world’s eyes on Atlanta and Hall County. I’ll let him tell a bit more:

“A few weeks out, The Times staff was invited on a tour of the Clarks Bridge Park venue as it was being readied. We clambered over the massive aluminum bleachers perched on a platform on the shore opposite the park. It was as if someone planted a high school football stadium on the side of a lake, one able to hold 16,000 sun-baked spectators.

“After that, I was ensconced in my bunker, seldom to emerge. I remember glancing up at the TV to see Muhammad Ali light the flame at the opening ceremonies, a moment that gave everyone goosebumps.”

Other staff members spent time out on the lake covering the events, and we recently spoke with one of those reporters about his memories telling the athletes’ stories.

What I remember of those days was that crazy Izzy mascot and being at my grandparents’ in South Carolina while one of my siblings got to attend some event — what I don’t remember, but I do remember thinking it wasn’t fair. 

The Olympics will always be a point of pride for this community, though. And that’s being celebrated today with a 5K and family events as well as an evening gala, both of which we previewed in earlier editions. 

Many of those here at the time volunteered during the events, some even hosted athletes in their homes and others helped fill the stands.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve shared front pages from 25 years ago on our Instagram feed, photos from our archives in our Daybreak newsletter as well as stories in the paper and other platforms about the torch bearers, athletes and venue.

I may not have my own memories of covering the Olympics, but the torch has been passed to me to help carry on the legacy of the time this newsroom covered the biggest event to ever come to Lake Lanier’s shores.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.