For Rich’s own Jack Mathias, Food Service Division sales and operations manager, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio brings back treasured memories shared exclusively by Olympians. Forty years ago, Mathias and his teammates marched proudly into the 1976 Olympic Games in Montréal representing the United States. And while every Olympic journey is different, Mathias’ road to Montréal was truly unique.
Mathias earned his spot on the 1976 Olympic Team in the sport of sailing; something he learned from a neighbor at the age of 15.
“I had never been on a sailboat before and I sailed with him a few times that year. The following spring, I sailed with him and we raced every race offered that season,” recalled Mathias. “I took to it. It wasn’t hard for me because I loved learning how to do it and how to get better. It’s not hard to learn how to go for a casual sail, but to win a race, it gets a little harder.”
When his desire to develop his skills became greater, Mathias picked up crew jobs whenever he could in Canada. He would sail with anyone who needed a crew, picking up new tricks along the way.
The time and effort was rewarded when Mathias met his future Olympic partners at a race in Rochester, NY. Together, they trained for the next two-and-a-half-years before heading to the Olympic Trials at Association Island off of Lake Ontario.
“There was a point during our Olympic training where I would work four days a week, drive up to Ithaca to race for the weekend, return home at around 2 or 3 a.m. on Sundays, and head straight back to work on Monday,” Mathias said.
Journey to Montréal
As a member of the Olympic sailing team, Mathias joined 10 other sailors from the United States, and over 300 United States athletes, for a chance to compete for gold.
With a vigilant security team at their side, Mathias recalls the US team making their way to the opening ceremony. Once there, each country was required to line up not by sport but by height, unlike today where athletes walk in clusters, mingling with teammates.
“I went straight to the end of the row because I knew that was my only shot of getting on TV. So when we started lining up I went in and started waving people over to create my own row. I never did see myself on TV though,” Mathias said.
That was until his son showed him a YouTube video of the opening ceremony where Mathias can clearly be seen walking with the United States team. It was the first time in the 40 years since the Olympics he saw himself march in around the 2:54 mark. Needless to say, Mathias was thrilled to see the clip.
“We marched in and gave a wave to the Queen [of England] and to Pierre Trudeau – the then prime minister of Canada. We recited the Olympic oath, watched them march in with the Olympic flag and then it ended with the lighting of the Olympic torch,” Mathias said.
Everybody was taking in the moment of being on the Olympic floor and taking photos, but Mathias recalls only taking about 10 photos.
“I should have shot five rolls, but I don’t think we would have been able to develop five rolls of film,” Mathias said remembering how strapped for money he was during his Olympic days.
With the excitement of the opening ceremony over, it was time to get back to business. It was time to sail.
Come Sail Away
The Olympic sailing course was located far out on Lake Ontario off Kingston, Ontario. The competition consisted of seven races and the team with the lowest amount of points winning. Mathias and his sailing partner were able to win the sixth race of the series, putting them in medal contention.
With eagerness and determination, Mathias entered the seventh and final race. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to clinch a spot high enough in the final race to place them as one of the top three teams.
West Germany ended up taking the gold, England won silver and Brazil won bronze. Mathias said England was their biggest competitor because their sailor, Rodney Pattisson, had won gold at the previous two Olympics.
“Had we won our final race and Rodney was back far enough, we would have won silver. We were that close,” Mathias said. “We ended up finishing sixth in the series.”
Even though Mathias didn’t carry a medal away from the Olympic Games, he found himself carrying the American flag for the closing ceremony held at the sailing site. These smaller site ceremonies were similar to the official closing ceremony of the Games; the torch was brought through and the oath was said.
Mathias gave his Olympic run his all, but there was one thing he would have done differently if he could do it over.
“One big regret I have was not going to the official closing ceremony in Montréal. Everyone said that no one goes, so we went home and I watched it on TV. I should have been there. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I should have done it,” Mathias said.
Days later, Mathias and his wife returned home from Canada and boarded a plane to Washington D.C., having been invited to the White House to meet President Gerald Ford.
“First they held a reception in the Rose Garden, but after that, Betty Ford invited everyone inside for punch and cookies,” Mathias said. “At that time the White House was wide open for us, so people were wandering around, pulling books off of shelves and putting their feet up on the coffee table when they sat down.”
Mathias’ wife even took a photo sitting at the Truman piano.
Unfortunately, the 1976 games would be Mathias’ first and last. During the 1980 Winter Olympics, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would not be sending Olympians to Moscow for the 1980 Summer Olympics (the winter and summer Olympics were held within the same year at that time.)
Mathias and his sailing partner could have still gone to the Olympic Trials but would not have been able to compete in the actual Olympics.
“It’s hard to say whether I would have been at those games. I would have had to compete at the Olympic Trials again and I was also sailing less at this point,” Mathias said. “But things do become a lot easier once you have been there once. We still could have gone to the Trials, received our outfits and called ourselves ‘1980 Olympians,’ but there was no point if we couldn’t actually compete in the real thing.”
So instead of preparing to make it to the Moscow Olympics, Mathias stayed home and continued working at the hardware distributer, The Howard Baker Company, that he worked for while he trained for the Olympics. He was appreciative that they had been so supportive during his Olympic adventures, giving him the time away from his job that he needed.
Life on Land
Now 40 years later, Mathias remains involved and connected with fellow Olympians and actively keeps the Olympic spirit alive. He has participated in Olympic Day at various locations throughout Western New York, is the President of an “unofficial” sailing Olympic alumni chapter and has served on an Olympic review committee for the US sailing team.
Mathias has enjoyed other privileges as an Olympian. He’s had the good fortune of carrying the Olympic torch twice, once in 1996 and again in 2002.
Just this past spring, Mathias and his wife traveled to Las Vegas to attend an official Olympic reunion. More than 300 Olympians and Paralympians gathered to rekindle friendships, make new connections with athletes from multiple generations, and celebrate the power of the Olympic Spirit.
Today, Mathias is just as excited to watch the Olympics, winter included, as anyone. He hopes to attend as a spectator one day.
“I love to see both of them. The summer is the real highlight though. If I could, I would watch the entire thing,” Mathias said. “It brings back so many memories and it just sends chills up my spine when the music starts going and they march in.”
Not surprisingly, Mathias still sails, racing every Wednesday night down at the Buffalo Harbor. In fact, one of Mathias’ typical race nights was recently captured by The Buffalo News.
When he speaks about the Olympics, Mathias’ pride is evident, and rightly so, as only a few people are members of the elite group of Olympians.
“It’s fun for it to be 40 years later – reflecting on the past, keeping the Olympic spirit alive and just being a part of that fraternity,” Mathias said.