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Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships at Lake Lanier a reunion of sorts

POSTED: July 30, 2014 5:58 p.m.
Nat Gurley | The Times/

The USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships start Thursday and run through Saturday at Lake Lanier Olympic Venue, followed by the Masters Sprint National Championships on Sunday. Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club members practice in the four-man kayak Tuesday afternoon at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue. From front are Saylor Sniatecki, Lisa Swenson, Maddie Cole and Gracyn Potter.

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The Lake Lanier Olympic Venue was buzzing Wednesday morning.

Canoe and kayak paddlers from across the country unloaded their equipment and took to the water to practice as music played. Teenagers, coaches and parents reconnected with familiar faces.

But the real blitz begins Thursday as the USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships get underway at the LLOV. Teams from Hawaii, California, Washington state, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida and Washington, D.C., are set to compete alongside the host Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club as the event, which features about 500 paddlers, runs through Saturday.

Then, the Masters Sprint National Championships will be held on Lake Lanier on Sunday.

For many, this national championship is also a reunion of sorts.

San Diego Canoe Kayak Team coach Chris Barlow raced in the pre-Olympic regatta on Lake Lanier in 1995, then brought his team to the national championship in its first year, 1997, on Lanier. Barlow always enjoys coming back to the site of rowing, canoe and kayak for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Having coached the U.S. junior national team at world championships in Hungary earlier this month, including LCKC paddler Farran Smith, Barlow is keenly familiar with many of the paddlers on hand.

“It’s always kind of nice to reconnect with them,” Barlow said.

Barlow’s club will host the national event in 2015.

Morgan House, Olympic Venue manager and High Performance 1 Coach for LCKC, said volunteers are a major force behind hosting such an event.

“They’ve all taken off work this week just to be preparing for this event,” House said.

Shelley Oates-Wilding lived in this area and coached LCKC in 2004 and 2005 before moving back to her native Australia to train for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, she’s back at Lake Lanier coaching Ikaika Hawaii, a team from where she now lives.

Oates-Wilding recalls coaching House and his wife, Emily Vinson House, among about 60 paddlers she had with LCKC. She’s excited to be back and reconnect with those she coached and see the growth of Gainesville.

“To see them blossoming as adults is a great thing,” Oates-Wilding said.

Oates-Wilding was also glad to show her new paddlers a place far from their home.

“Now, we have 20 fabulous kids from Hawaii who can enjoy Gainesville,” she said.

Marsh Jones, coach for Rice Creek Boat Club out of New Brighton, Minn., has eight athletes in Gainesville, six of whom have never competed in a race. Jones said his club “had an incredible time” at Lake Lanier at nationals in the club’s first year of existence (2011).

The Rice Creek Boat Club is 700 miles from the nearest canoe and kayak club, making this week a welcome change.

“It’s a chance for our athletes to compete against kids other than themselves,” Jones said.

Ian Mack, coach for the first-year Cape Coral-based South Florida Canoe Kayak Club, has strong ties to the area. He and his wife, SFCKC Executive Director Melinda Mack, previously lived here with his son Tanner Mack and stepson Dylan Easterday on LCKC. Tanner Mack was on the U23 national team and Easterday on the Olympic Hopes team. The South Florida team features mostly newcomers at this nationals event.

“Our main thing is having our kids starting and finishing the race,” Ian Mack said.

House said events like this take on special meaning because of the relationships built through paddling.

“When you really get involved, this takes over your life,” House said. “And this is where your friends and family are.”

U.S. national team members Chris Miller, Stanton Collins, Ian Ross and Ben Hefner will be part of the event.

The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team from Washington state is going for its third national championship in a row.

Jones enjoys the way the community wraps its arms around the sport here, with people willing to host teams for spring camp. Even going in the grocery store, people will greet him and ask him about the event he’s here for. Then, there’s the lake.

“The venue is phenomenal,” Jones said.

House, who has been to most of the world’s best racing sites, took it a step further.

“To me, there’s no better venue in the world,” House said.

While the competition is sure to be fierce, House also occasionally shares advice from one of his coaches with the LCKC paddlers: “We’re not curing cancer. We’re rowing skinny boats in straight lines with our friends.”

Sure enough, they have a good time doing it.


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