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Local paddlers set for Pan-Am Championships

POSTED: October 5, 2010 8:50 p.m.
Sara Guevara/The Times

Paddler Luke Potts will be competing in the Pan American Championships in Mexico City beginning Thursday.

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When he was first asked if he wanted to switch from a kayak to a canoe, Ben Hefner was skeptical because he knew paddling the two vessels was completely different and that he wouldn’t have immediate success.

“When you start, you know it’s going to take time,” Hefner said. “You gotta be patient.”

After six to eight months of training, and a few years after making the switch, Hefner’s patience has paid off in a big way. The 18-year-old freshman at North Georgia College is one of several members of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club representing in this week’s Pan American Championships in Mexico City.

“I’m looking forward to representing the US to the best of my ability,” said Hefner, who is one of three Americans competing in both the junior and senior events. “You feel proud when you’re doing something for your country. I’m just going to do my best.”

Hefner admitted he doesn’t like to think about whether he’s going to race well or not, but headed into this event, he knows how lucky he is for the opportunity to compete at the international level in two divisions.

“I’m real excited I made both teams,” he said. “There’s no difference pressure wise, but it’s more of an honor to race up.”

After changing from a kayak to canoe in 2008, Hefner was asked to attend that year’s Pan-Am Games but couldn’t because he couldn’t get excused from his finals at North Hall High. Last year, he competed in the Junior World Championships in Moscow as a junior, and entered this year with one goal in mind: to compete with the seniors and get on the path to qualifying for the Olympics.

This year’s senior events of the Pan-Am Championships are a qualifier for next year’s Pan-Am Games, which is the first step in qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London.

“My ultimate dream is the Olympics,” said Hefner, who is competing in the C-1 1,000-meter event. “I want to do anything I can to get there.”

While Hefner is heading to the championships with Olympic aspirations, his fellow juniors are just looking forward to the race, despite the obstacles in their way.

“We usually get there a day or two before, but this time we’re landing the night before the race,” said Luke Potts, who is competing in six events. “We land 12 hours before the first race starts.”

Aside from the lack of preparation time, the paddlers also must deal with the change in altitude. Mexico City is 7,400 feet above sea level.

“It’s going to make it harder to breathe,” said Potts, a 17 year old who attends Flowery Branch High. “I haven’t done anything to prepare and I’m kind of nervous about the altitude.”

So is Zach Robertson, who along with competing in the K-1 1,000 event will join Potts in the kayak for the K-2 500 and K-2 1,000 meter races.

“Everyone’s going to have to deal with it, but there might be some people who have prepared more,” Robertson said. “It’s my own fault. I can’t blame anyone.”

Some competitors, like Gainesville resident Morgan House, have used a hyperbaric chamber to prepare for the altitude.

“I probably could have run till my heart exploded, but I didn’t,” Robertson said. “Hopefully I’ll still be able to race well and come out with a medal.”

This isn’t the first international competition for either paddler, as they competed in the 2008 Pan-Am Games in Montreal and the 2009 Junior World Championships.

Other seniors on the US team are Tim Hornsby, Ryan Stock, David Petrovics, Carrie Johnson, Maggie Hogan, Jen Burke, Kaitlin McElroy, Emily Mickle, Nicole Mallory, Rob Finlayson, Ian Ross, Miroslaw Podloch, David Podloch, Pam Boteler, Amina Saleh, Itzel Reza Flores and Anna Crawford.

Joining Hefner, Potts and Robertson on the junior team are Ross, David Podloch, J.L. Guinchard, Katy Hill, Morgan Smith, Bryse Paffile, Dustin Sousley, Ryan Passen, James Watson, Angela Wang and Sarah Rucci.

The 2010 Pan American Championships begin Thursday and end Sunday.



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