It’s a rare occurrence to drive into a Gainesville parking lot and find more Quebec license plates than those from Georgia.
That was the case at the Lake Lanier Olympic Center over the weekend as Gainesville hosted canoe and kayaking Olympic trials for Canada ahead of the summer games in London.
Seventy-five Canadian paddlers competed on Lake Lanier on Friday through Sunday, as they have in years in past.
It’s a welcome sight for the venue that hosted Olympic events in 1996 and the 2003 Sprint Canoe/Kayak World Championships, but has been losing big events to better-financed venues.
The addition of the athletes, their trainers and families — some of whom came weeks before the trials — to Gainesville can be a local economic boost, said Deb Gregson, with Gainesville’s Communications and Tourism Office.
“It’s about getting our name out there,” she said. “When a group like this wants to come and practice here, that to me is huge.”
But it almost didn’t happen this year.
Canada’s team regularly schedules in the U.S. this time of year, but lake waters in Canada are still cold enough to slow down canoe and kayak athletes, said Ian Miller, a spokesman for Canoe Kayak Canada. With warmer water and air temperatures, Gainesville offers an ideal spot for the paddlers to compete.
But the Canadian team had actually booked a venue in Oklahoma City, Okla. That site has been in competition with the Lake Lanier Olympic Center and recently has lured some paddling events away from Gainesville with superior facilities and equipment.
But the Canadian team chose to cancel that booking and switched back to Lanier when it realized the site would be available this weekend.
Miller said part of that decision was the familiarity with the lake. Canoe Kayak Canada has been holding events at Lanier for more than a decade.
But it was also a matter of logistics.
“Most of our athletes train in Florida,” Miller explained. “This venue gives some of them a chance to come up a bit early to train.”
The Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, which helped organize the event, also arranged to have a refurbished automated start gate system be used during the trials.
The gates ensure the boats all begin at the same time. The gate system was originally used at the 2003 World Championships held on Lanier.
The club will draw canoe and kayak athletes from across the United States later this month when it hosts the 2012 U.S. Marathon Team Trials. While not associated with the Olympics, this event is the qualifier to represent the United States at the Marathon World Championships in Rome, Italy.