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Laniers natural allure counters rival course
Man-made venue in Oklahoma City competes for top rowing, paddling events
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Take it from paddlers and rowers around the world: There's something special about Lake Lanier.

Since the 1996 Olympics, the Lake Lanier Olympic Center has faced a slow decline. Old air conditioning units falter in the summer while heating units stall in winter. The locks have rusted and the plumbing needs a makeover.

But what the center lacks in funds, facilities or full-time staff, it makes up for in a near-perfect natural combination of weather, water and wind protection.

The water at Lake Lanier is naturally bordered by trees on two sides, protecting paddlers and rowers from wind and creating an ideal atmosphere for the sport.
The climate is warm enough for practice most of the year.

Competitors from around the world know about Lake Lanier, and many visit just to dip their paddles and oars into Olympic-level waters.

"A lot of the infrastructure is aging, but even without the infrastructure, we feel very positive about what we have," Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club Director Doug Smith said.

Smith has visited other flatwater sports centers, including the Boathouse District in Oklahoma City, Okla.

The Boathouse District is a big competitor in rowing and canoe/kayak events, mainly for its state-of-the-art facilities and proximity to the heart of the city. And because it's brand new.

That's because the water that runs through the venue is a man-made tributary from the Oklahoma River, nestled under a freeway and bordering a train track.

According to the OKC Boathouse Foundation website, The Boathouse District has two boathouses. The oldest was built just five years ago and cost $3.5 million. The newest addition is a $10 million boathouse with an indoor propulsion swimming pool, a rowing tank and a high-altitude training room.

The high-dollar amenities at Oklahoma City attract competitors, and have pulled some athletes away from Lake Lanier. There are also scholarship opportunities from local schools, something the clubs at Lake Lanier can't offer.

But water? Oklahoma City is no match, Smith said.

"Their whole setup is completely different from ours," he said.

While Lake Lanier's Olympic course has lost athletes to flashier venues, the shine is starting to wear off.

Lake Lanier Rowing Club President Cliff Ward said crosswinds on the course at Oklahoma City frustrates some athletes, and others are drawn back to Lanier because of its natural beauty.

"We have needs at Lake Lanier, but the natural amenity of the course is just something that we can't reproduce, and it's something no one else can reproduce easily. It's our big advantage," Ward said.

Other venues also have full-time staffs, something else the Lake Lanier center doesn't have.

Brenda Miller is the part-time office manager for the canoe and kayak club at Lake Lanier, and she's one of barely a handful of staff.

But what the clubs at Lake Lanier do have are volunteers, and lots of them. Some of the bigger events at the center can attract as many as 500 visitors a day, and there are usually 150 to 175 volunteers ready to serve, Miller said.

"It's the passion of the people," she said.

Miller didn't even know about kayaks until her son, Chris, and husband, James, attended the Olympics at Lanier. Now Miller's son is a world-class kayaker, and she understands why the venue is still a sought-after training site.

"People right around here may not know about this venue, but people around the world know," she said.