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Olympic Memories: Q&A with Jack Pyburn
Jack Pyburn

Jack Pyburn, an architect and rowing enthusiast, helped local organizers create the plan for the Lake Lanier venue and helped found the Lake Lanier Rowing Club.

How did you first get involved in the Olympic effort here?

My involvement with the Olympic effort started in 1984 when I purchased a recreational rowing shell as an alternative to running for exercise as my football-weary joints were giving out. When the Olympics were announced, I had been rowing for several years on Lake Lanier in various coves and narrower wind-protected stretches of Lake Lanier, including above Clarks Bridge. I had decided that if, as a Gainesville architect, I was going to pursue involvement in the ’96 Games I wanted to pursue the rowing venue. I purchased a copy of the world rowing federation’s (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron) course design manual and studied the requirements for a course and related infrastructure.

The rowing venue site in Atlanta’s Olympic bid was on the lake at Stone Mountain. However, after Atlanta was selected and when considered more carefully, the cost to blast out the Stone Mountain granite to get the full 2,000-meter course on the Stone Mountain lake made that site unfeasible. The Atlanta Olympic Committee then selected and announced a new site, a yet to be built water resource reservoir in Rockdale County that was projected to be completed and filled, if normal rain patterns prevailed, within six months of the start of the Games.

From my research and having spent some time around serious rowers, I had learned two things: Competitive rowers do not like uncertain water conditions for regattas, and the Rockdale site, in the best of circumstances, could not be built and filled in time for the kind of advanced testing of water and wind conditions and the course FISA demanded. At that point I saw a potential opening for Lake Lanier and my active involvement in the ’96 rowing event.

I was aware from my recreational rowing experience and my understanding of the FISA course design manual that the Clarks Bridge site had the geometric configuration necessary to accommodate a course. I knew the water there was wonderfully flat from my early-morning rows. I was also aware of the U.S. (Army) Corps of Engineers property at Clarks Bridge Park that could accommodate at least some of the venue infrastructure such as the boathouse and business side of the venue. Based on that knowledge, I developed a conceptual layout for a venue at Clarks Bridge and approached Jim Mathis about the idea of contacting the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games to inform them of a Lake Lanier site option.

Despite numerous calls to ACOG, they would not give us the time of day. So in consultation with Jim Mathis, I called USRowing, the rowing arm of the U.S. Olympic Committee in Indianapolis, and informed them we had an alternative site with water, good water. The executive director of USRowing indicated in the call that FISA representatives from Switzerland would be in Indianapolis in two days for a meeting on the ’96 Games and the World Championships scheduled for Indianapolis that year. I was told if we could get to Indianapolis a meeting would be arranged with the FISA representatives to present the site as a possible alternative, effectively bypassing ACOG.

Jim Mathis’ cousin is Zell Miller. Jim, or his dad, called then Gov. Miller’s office, which provided a state plane the next day after the call for us to fly to Indianapolis. We loaded my concept plan in the plane and with the Gainesville city manager and a Hall County commissioner flew up for the meeting. At the meeting was the ACOG manager responsible for development of the rowing venue who would not return our calls. As you can imagine he was less than pleasantly surprised to learn of our presence.

We made our presentation. The FISA representatives asked questions. The ACOG representative said nothing. Little was offered in the way of encouraging words. We left and flew home. The rest is history.

While this was an exciting experience, it was only the foot in the door. In the end, the rowing venue would not have come to Lake Lanier without the broader support and effort of many Gainesvillians who volunteered and lead an exceptional communitywide effort that resulted in a successful event.

What’s your most vivid or fondest memory from the Games?

There were many memories that bring a smile to my face. Some were directly related to the event itself, and others relate to the preceding couple of years that involved pre-Olympic events at Clarks Bridge to assure the water, wind conditions and course had been thoroughly tested.

My most fond pre-Olympic experience was the Harvard/Yale/Oxford/Cambridge Head-to-Head Race in 1995. It was the brainchild of a Brit named Richard Fishlock, who had rowed at Cambridge and was a promoter of sorts. It turns out that up to that time the four collegiate rowing powerhouses head never raced head to head in the sport’s history. Fishlock organized the British side of the race and by then retired Judge Sidney O. Smith Jr., one of Gainesville’s all-time outstanding citizens and who had rowed at Harvard, helped get the commitment of the Harvard and Yale crews. The event was held on the Lake Lanier Olympic course.

After the serious events between the four collegiate crews and with a community spirit, the four collegiate crews divided into boats (eights) that were half elite collegiate oarsmen and half rag-knot Lake Lanier Rowing Club members for a 2,000-meter sprint race. There was one boat that was made up of the coaches from the four universities, all former Olympic and elite collegiate (rowers). They had one seat open, and they invited me to fill that seat for the race.

Rowers know that one of the worst things that can happen in a boat is to catch a crab, an occurrence when one’s oar does not enter the water perpendicular to the surface of the water. When this happens, the blade dives deep into the water from the force of eight rowers pulling through a stroke. The force is too strong for the offending rower to control the oar. The handle of the oar catches the oarsman in the stomach and literally ejects the rower from the boat. It is not an experience to have. All that to say that my main objective in getting down the course with the boat full of elite rowers, sans me, was not to catch a crab.

What makes this race so memorable was that it was a unique and amazing sensation to sense the full power of eight (seven) Olympic quality rowers pulling at full force. It felt like a full-throttled freight train coming down the lake. It is an experience I will never forget. I was given in this one race a glimpse of what it is like to participate in an eight-oared Olympic rowing event. The enjoyment of winning the race (we were ringers anyway) was greatly overshadowed by the relief that I had made it down the course without catching a crab.

My most memorable Olympic experience was that my family volunteered at the venue. I managed the boathouse, my wife participated in providing medical coverage for the athletes and Olympic family, and two of my daughters had assignments as starters, runners, chase boat aids, etc. The involvement of families across the community in the event made it quite a special time.

Experiencing the workings of the boathouse during an Olympic regatta and seeing Sir Steven Redgrave, with Sir Matthew Pinsent, win gold medals in his (fourth) straight Olympics is also a special memory.

How has being involved in the Olympics in ’96 impacted your life since?

I certainly watch the Olympics with a perspective different than before 1996. The understanding of the preparation and workings of the venue and the dedication and focus of the athletes puts a special light on the Games for me.

The experience has certainly given me a special bond with folks like Jim Mathis and others and an opportunity to spend time and work with people like Sid Smith who have contributed so much to the Gainesville community and beyond. The friendships made through the Lake Lanier Rowing Club will always be special.

So much focus on celebrations are around the event and with good reason. However, there were many who quietly and in Gainesville’s tradition of community support prepared the way for the Olympics in Gainesville to become a reality. One that is special to me and to Gainesville is Lou Fockele. Lou, former publisher of The Times and another of the great citizens of Gainesville, did and funded many special things for the city, always in the background. One such gesture was he purchased the first multiseat boat, an eight-person shell, for the newly formed and fledgling Lake Lanier Rowing Club. That support and the boat brought out of the Gainesville woodwork experienced (former collegiate rowers living in Gainesville) and curious residents desiring to try the sport for exercise and fun.

James Mathis Sr., Jim’s dad, let the club store its new boat in a former grocery store where the downtown SunTrust Bank now sits. That was the start of the Lake Lanier Rowing Club and the broader interest in rowing in the Gainesville community that helped solidify community interest and produce a bevy of local knowledgeable Olympic rowing venue volunteers.

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