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1996 Olympics: Gainesville torch bearers recall 'one of the most exciting times'
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Jim Mathis Jr., chair of Gainesville Hall '96, lights his torch July 15, 1996, from the caldron lighted earlier in the ceremony on the Gainesville square by Doug Ivester, then president and chief operating officer of Cocoa-Cola. - photo by Jim Cook Jr.

This is part of a series on the 25th anniversary of the Centennial Olympics, which included rowing and paddling events on Lake Lanier. Coming Friday is a piece on how the Olympics were brought to Gainesville. Other pieces in the series include:


Staring into the crowds of people while holding his lit torch high on July 15, 1996, Jim Mathis Jr. said he couldn’t help but tear up. 

He remembers community members swelling with excitement in downtown Gainesville, packing into the streets and even standing on rooftops to bask in the historical moment. 

The Olympics had arrived in Gainesville. 

“I saw all the people around me, all friends and supporters for the event,” Mathis said. “There were people working all over the place to make it happen. It was a very emotional time.”

Mathis, retired CEO and president of North Georgia Community Foundation, was one of around 13 people who carried the Olympic torch through Hall County. The torch entered the county around 12:04 p.m., arrived in the Gainesville square at 12:43 p.m. and made its way across Lake Lanier at 2:21 p.m.

John Simpson, now assistant head of school at Lakeview Academy, said he was honored with the task of running alongside torch bearers. The then 18-year-old accompanied Mathis, Doug and Kay Ivester and Philip Wilheit.

“I remember running next to Mr. Wilheit, and he had the torch really high up in his hand,” Simpson said. “I could tell he was really proud that we had really done this. The Olympics was really coming into our backyards.”

Simpson said he’ll never forget when the torch came to Doug Ivester, former CEO of Coca-Cola. Instead of running like the other torch bearers, Ivester decided to walk with his wife. 

Simpson said Ivester told him that he wanted to “soak in the moment.”

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Doug Ivester, then president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola, walks up Main Street on July 15, 1996, as he approaches the downtown Gainesville square with the Olympic torch. - photo by Jim Cook Jr.

Looking out into the smiling faces of his fellow community members, Simpson said he knew walking was the best choice. He has kept this lesson close over the past 25 years.

“Sometimes you’ve got to stop running so fast in life, and just slow down, walk and just take it in,” he said. “It was a moment we really enjoyed, and I think it’s neat what happened in Gainesville.”

Mary Hart Wilheit, local philanthropist, said she carried her torch across the lake while riding in a pontoon. She remembers leaning over to ignite the torch of the next person on the route. However, the flame wouldn’t take.

“And then I started getting nervous,” Mary Hart Wilheit said. “Is this the one that stops the torch that went around the world, and I blow it out here on Lake Lanier? Then, finally it took.”

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DeAnne Hemmens, a member of U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team, holds the Olympic torch July 15, 1996, as her teammates paddle across the venue at what is now Lake Lanier Olympic Park. A team of rowers completed the crossing. - photo by Tom Reed

Ricky Rich, who worked with the Gainesville Police Department for 20 years, describes bearing the torch in Gainesville as “one of the most exciting times'' in his life. Rich said he was nominated and chosen to be a torch bearer for his efforts in the community.

After Philip Wilheit lit his torch, Rich said they both high-fived, and he jogged along High Street to the Wachovia building on E.E. Butler Parkway.  

“I trained for this event, and I ran two blocks,” Rich said, smiling. 

After passing the torch to Steve Gilliam, Rich walked to the square to partake in the midday festivities. Although he wasn’t an Olympic athlete, he said many people stopped him for photographs.

“One of the greatest things I can remember that really impacted me, that I wasn’t expecting, was the community,” Rich said. “Just everybody coming out and having that Olympic spirit. All races, all religions, everything, it was all team U.S.A. And it was the Gainesville-Hall County community. That was a great feeling.”

Hall’s torch bearers will be recognized Saturday, Aug. 7, during the Porch to Torch 5K and Fun Run, which begins at City Park in Gainesville. The event will be held in honor of the 25th anniversary of the ’96 Olympic Games.

Katie Dubnik, chair of the run’s committee and Mathis’ daughter, said it will include a 5K and a torch relay for children. Kids will also get the chance to make their own Olympic torch and participate in other activities. 

Dubnik said the race starts at 8 a.m. and will take runners along parts of the ’96 Olympics torch route in Gainesville.

For more information and to register, visit runsignup.com/porchtotorch

Porch to Torch 5K and Fun Run

What: Event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Olympic torch run in Gainesville

When: 8-10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 7

Where: City Park, 549 Glenwood Drive NE, Gainesville 

How much: $30 adults, $20 children under 18

Register/more info: runsignup.com/porchtotorch

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