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An Olympic legacy: Canadian teams keep the torch burning on Lanier
Michael Schaus carries his kayak off the dock after a workout on Lake Lanier in preparation for the Canadian Olympic Team trials that will be held this weekend at the Lanier Olympic Center. Behind Schaus is team mate Wes Hammer. - photo by Tom Reed

In the beginning, the Lake Lanier Olympic venue was meant for great things, the most important being the legacy that creating an Olympic venue would leave for rowing and sprint canoe and kayak sports.

As about 150 athletes from Canoe Kayak Canada arrive in Gainesville for the team’s Olympic trials, the man who has been with the Lake Lanier venue since the beginning says the event is a reminder that the Lake Lanier Olympic venue is the only one from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that is still used for major international events.

"It was something that should have a longtime legacy," said Jim Mathis Jr., chairman of Gainesville-Hall ’96 since 1996. "The Canadian trials this week ... shows that our venue has survived, and it has been extremely productive."

Since the Olympic Games were held in Gainesville, "international people are here all the time," said Connie Hagler, a member of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club’s board of directors and former executive director of the club.

In 2003, the venue played host to the Lanier Canoe 2003 Flatwater Racing World Championships, an event in which countries had to compete in order to make it to the 2004 Olympics. In other years Lake Lanier was the home to numerous collegiate rowing championships and countless regional events. The Lake Lanier venue has even been named by Rowing News Magazine one of the top 10 places in the country to row.

Even now, some of the children who joined the canoe and kayak program after the Olympics came are getting very near to competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Everyone who spoke to The Times about the legacy of the venue said volunteers in the community have been an integral part of carrying on the Olympic legacy at Lake Lanier.

"When Canoe Kayak World’s were here... everybody was pitching in," said John Ferriss, a former coach for the Lake Lanier Rowing Club. "The rowing club provided motorboats and people to drive them and I think both clubs provided volunteers. A lot of people were involved in it and making everything happen."

One stipulation of Gainesville-Hall ’96 was that the Olympic venue not be a burden on Hall County taxpayers, Mathis said. For that reason, volunteers have made all the world-class events at Lake Lanier possible.

"If you raise the flag, people will come," Ferriss said. "...If we had the junior worlds here next year, I’m sure we would be lining up people and we wouldn’t have trouble doing it."

Through the years, volunteers have been responsible for the most difficult of tasks. When Lake Lanier hosted the 2003 World Championships, volunteers rebuilt a used automatic start system, "and it worked flawlessly," Hagler said. Another volunteer donated phone systems so that the venue was equipped with sound and television on each side.

"The volunteers were just amazing," Hagler said.

And those who are close to the venue do not forget to mention the support it receives from local government and law enforcement.

"A lot of pieces have to fall together to make (a major event) happen," Ferriss said.

But the venue, in its 12th year, faces challenges. Hagler said the venue needs more investment from the community to allow it to continue to compete internationally with rising venues in the United States, like the Chesapeake Boathouse in Oklahoma City.

"If we want to stay in the game, our community’s going to have to support the (rowing and canoe kayak) community in a different way, because that’s what everyone else is doing," Hagler said.

Even Mathis, who contends that the Lanier venue remains competitive internationally, admits that it’s time for the venue to expand, address the lack of housing for athletes and develop more programs that support athletes as they work toward international competition.

Even the drought has had an impact on the venue’s future. "It’s hard to be real pretty when there’s no water," Mathis said.

But despite the challenges, "we still run an event better than anybody else in North America," Hagler said.

"It’s a huge asset for the community," Ferriss said. "It’s like a gem in Northeast Georgia, but it takes maintenance to keep it up."