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Local residents and leaders remember the 96 Games
Competitor liked seeing Laniers beauty before race
Clarks Bridge Road resident Kitty Fields had 1996 Olympic events right behind her house which sits on Lake Lanier. Even with trees planted to help screen her home from the Olympic venue at Clarks Bridge Park, the tower and course remain visible.

One could say William Fields, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1952 for his rowing exploits, had a strong say in where the Atlanta 1996 Games' flatwater competition should take place.

"They were talking about dredging a river and all that kind of stuff, and (Fields) said, ‘You guys are crazy, I've got the world's best rowing area in the world right in my backyard,'" his widow, Kitty Fields, said last week.

William Fields was speaking quite literally.

What would become the Olympics' canoe/kayak and rowing venue was within shouting distance of the Fields' back door on Clarks Bridge Road in Gainesville.

"I was a volunteer during the Olympics and also hosting Bill's Olympic (crew) team here at my home during the (games)," said Kitty Fields, whose husband died in 1992.

In 1996, Fields opened her home to Olympic competitor Yasmin Farooq, coxswain of the U.S. women's eights who competed on the waters just outside Fields' door. Her home was "literally right on the finish line," Farooq said.

Farooq was fresh off a World Championship win in Finland. Her boat finished fourth in the '96 Olympic finals, but she still remembers those quiet moments and the beauty of Lake Lanier before the race.

"I remember the first time I went to the Gainesville course, well before a cable or buoy had been set, and thinking how beautiful it was in its natural state," Farooq, now women's rowing coach at Stanford University, wrote in an email.

The 15th anniversary of the Olympics stirred memories for other area residents, with recollections dating before the world focused its eyes on Northeast Georgia.

City Councilman Bob Hamrick was just another starstruck fan when he saw world-class athletes eating at local restaurants.

"Some of the gold medalists, the winners, would be in the restaurants and they'd had their medals on. It was exciting times," he said with a laugh.

Olympics organizer Billy Payne didn't know much about the sport until he visited Lake Lanier. As he watch the 16,000-seat grandstand built from nothing and the intricate crisscross of course lanes as they were sunk into the water, he "got into it," he said.

"I was just dumbfounded."

One of the best moments of Payne's life came immediately after the worst moment in Atlanta Olympic history.

In the days following the tragic Centennial Park bombing July 27, he watched as thousands of people rallied against death and fear. As the park was reopened, Payne had "no idea what to expect."

In "maybe the emotional highlight of my life," Payne said he saw "tens of thousands of people, celebrating and defiant that nobody was going to destroy the spirit of the games."

"It was an amazing moment," he added.

Jim Mathis Jr., president and CEO of the North Georgia Community Foundation, was chairman of Gainesville-Hall '96 Roundtable, which worked to bring the venue to Gainesville.

He said Jack Pyburn, a local architect and rower at the time, was a primary motivator in bringing the competition to Gainesville.

Pyburn contacted the Southeastern Junior Regatta, held in the area in May 1993.

"They brought 515 young rowers and put in a course at Longwood Park," Mathis said. "That was the first rowing event or competition ever held on Lake Lanier."

At that event, "there were some representatives from the German national team who were looking for places to practice prior to the world championships that were ... going to be in Indianapolis," Mathis said.

The community then began "working on the possibility of having the venue here," especially as problems with the planned rowing and paddling venue at Stone Mountain.

"The Stone Mountain lake was not as large as it was supposed to be," Mathis said.

"They were going to have to drain the lake and dynamite some of Stone Mountain to rebuild it, and that was not a good idea."

Mathis recalled the roundtable meetings, held monthly and open to the public.

"The most remarkable thing of the whole experience was how everybody cooperated and ... pitched in," he said.

When Lake Lanier was selected as the venue for rowing and canoe/kayak in December 1993, the roundtable's name was changed simply to Gainesville-Hall '96.

"We had to have a name that didn't have ‘summer games' or ‘Olympic' in it, so we didn't have to go through the copyrighting all the time," Mathis said.

The games themselves were an exciting affair.

Mathis recalled NBC sportscaster Charlie Jones referring to Gainesville-Hall County as "the hospitality capital of the world."

"We played on that a lot and enjoyed that recognition," he said.

He also remembered walking through the grandstands built across the lake from the timing tower.

"It was just touching. As I walked up the hill to the area where they got off the buses, I saw all our volunteers ... and they were about every 50 feet greeting people and being hospitable," Mathis said.

Connie Hagler, former executive director of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, moved to the area before the games.

"The whole family was involved and everybody got to be volunteers at the Olympics," she recalled.