Jim Mathis Jr. carries Olympic Torch in downtown Gainesville - 1996

Jim Mathis Jr. carries 1996 Olympic torch through downtown Gainesville

Jim Mathis, Jr. former Gainesville banker and retired CEO of the North Georgia Community Foundation, who helped spark the Olympic spirit around Lake Lanier 25 years ago, will carry that spirit again Aug. 7. The 1996 local torch bearer looks forward to riding in a pace car leading participants along the streets of Gainesville in the 8 a.m. Porch to Torch 5K Run/Walk.

“It will be very exciting” to be part of the festivities commemorating the 1996 Olympic rowing/canoe kayak events, Mathis said. He described his own torch run from the Gainesville Square onto streets near Brenau University as “the most exciting part” of his Olympic experience. He ran alongside another community-minded torch bearer, John Simpson, then a senior athlete at Gainesville High School.

Mathis recalled the 1996 Olympic torch rolled toward Gainesville by bicycle along Ga. 129 from Athens, where Atlanta Olympic Games chairman Billy Payne helicoptered it to Sandford Stadium. Boy Scouts met the bicyclist “at a gas station on Ga. 129” and they transported it toward Gainesville. Doug Ivester, Gainesville native and former Coca-Cola executive, carried it alongside his wife, Kay. Other local torch bearers included Gainesville attorney Steve Gilliam, who co-chaired Gainesville-Hall ’96 with Mathis, Philip Wilheit, active in local and state affairs, and his wife, Mary Hart Wilheit who brought the torch onto Lake Lanier in a pontoon boat. In all about a dozen torch carriers brought the Olympic flame through Hall County to Lake Lanier.

In Gainesville, thousands of spectators cheered from the roofs of Hunt Tower and other buildings on the square. “There were so many people. I was really touched,” Mathis said.

The commemorative run/walk this month follows some of the same streets the Olympic torch blazed in 1996. Race publicist Katie Dubnik, Mathis’ daughter, said several of the original torch runners will ride ahead of participants with her dad.

The out-and-back course starts at City Park just off Glenwood Drive above the baseball diamond and descends left onto Prior Street. It climbs up Prior Street, turns right for another rise onto Candler, and follows Boulevard to a right on Academy. It then swings left into the parking lot of Northeast Georgia History Center, which is hosting an Olympic-themed family day. It exits the lot for a left on Brenau and heads right onto Boulevard. Next, it goes left, ascending Spring Street and takes another left onto the rolling little hills of Prior. A right on Park Street takes participants to the half-way point, just past Mulberry, where they turn around and complete the course in reverse. It is a fairly demanding route, especially the hills at the start and finish. A 1-mile option is also available.

Dubnik said festivities at City Park include an Olympic Village with interactive crafts for kids, Olympic memorabilia, and refreshments. The Quinlan Visual Arts Center is creating a torch for display. The City of Gainesville plans to record home towners’ Olympic memories on video.

Race participants receive a commemorative t-shirt and refreshments. Overall and age groups awards will be presented after the race starting at 9 a.m. The Olympic Village continues until 10 a.m.

Packet pickup will take place 11 a.m.-1 p.m., 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Gainesville Civic Center, just up the hill from City Park. Packets will also be available race morning beginning at 7 a.m. Registration is $30, $18 for children younger than 18. Register online at RunSignup.com/Race/GA/Gainesville/PorchtoTorch5K.

Photo: by Vicki Hope