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Lake Lanier Olympic Park upgrades to a level field for athletes, fans
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Vadim Kin paddles in the Para Men’s 200 meter event Saturday afternoon during the US National Team Trials at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Canoe and kayak teams from all over the United States met over the weekend at Lake Lanier Olympic Park to compete for a chance to represent the U.S. in the Pan American Games at the venue May 19-22, with a chance to earn a spot compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games later this year.

Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club member Farran Smith says the reason Lanier was chosen is simple: Location, location, location.

“All of my life I have been in the lake, and this course is one of the fastest in the world due to the current and the wind cover from the trees,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s hard when you go to other places where it isn’t so good.”

Smith said Lake Lanier is naturally a great place to race, without a lot of factors like wind or currents that could sway the outcome of a race.

But until this year, competing at Lake Lanier Olympic Park wasn’t an even playing field for everyone. With no ramps to the lake and a judging tower with steep stairs, disabled athletes and fans faced limited access.

In preparing for the Pan American Games, Gainesville/Hall ‘96 worked to renovate the venue and upgrade its access to the disabled. Nearly $1.6 million has been invested into renovating the park’s service building and judges tower, increasing accessibility and comfort for fans and athletes.

Gainesville/Hall ‘96 Chairwoman Mimi Collins said improving accessibility was a top priority.

“Before, It was really hard to get down to the lake,” Collins said. “We had such a neat space because of the huge windows, but it wasn’t really accessible.”

When the renovations are completed, the venue will have several multiuse spaces, including a reception room in the judging tower, and a concession building with improved bathroom facilities.

Collins explained seeing so many para-athletes and wheelchair-confined fans at the events Friday and Saturday means the renovations are making an impact. Collins pointed at a woman being helped up the ramp and said, “She’s the grandmother of a participant today, and good example of what I mean.”

For Olympian Chris Barlow, who coaches three para-athletes from San Diego, improvements to accessibility are a big win for teams with such competitors.

“The great thing about this sport is that para-athletes, when they get in the boat, you don’t really see that they have a disability and they can just race with able bodied people,” Barlow said. “Anything that makes things easier or more accessible for them, I’m behind.”

Smith said that since the renovations a para-athlete, Nik Miller, joined Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club and won the men’s 200-meter final Saturday.

“And I think that’s so great,” Smith said. “For a lot of para-athletes, it lets them just be athletes.”

To find out more about the 2016 Pan American Competition set for May 19-22, visit the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club website,