Pan American Championships
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Park, Clarks Bridge Park
Opening ceremony: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Brenau University’s Pearce Auditorium, 202 Boulevard, Gainesville; tickets $50
More information: www.lakelanierolympicvenue.org
As 9-year-old Morgan House watched the Centennial Olympic Games from the shores of Lake Lanier, the world’s best kayakers paddled through the lake’s still waters.
Little did he know he would be managing those waters nearly 20 years later.
Today, House is venue manager at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park on Clarks Bridge Road in Gainesville. He’s something of a Gainesville kayaking legend, having competed professionally in more than 30 countries before coming back to his hometown.
This week, the Olympic park will host the Canoe/Kayak Pan American Championships for the first time in its history. The games are the continental qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, meaning any canoe or kayak athlete on the continent seeking to compete in the Rio Summer Games must come through Gainesville first.
Those are high stakes House knows well, having competed in the Pan Am games himself years ago.
“I started paddling in 1995, when I was 8 years old,” House said. “By 1996, I came and watched the Olympics here, and I was obviously very inspired. So I joined the club on the first day they opened.”
House trained with the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club recreationally, becoming “more involved in middle school.”
“In 2003, I qualified for the Junior World Championship team, to compete at the Junior Worlds in Komatsu, Japan,” he said. “That’s when I really got excited.”
House said he “did really poorly” in Japan, but he qualified again in 2005 for the Junior Worlds, placing fifth in the world in Szeged, Hungary. To this day, that is still the best American kayaker performance in Junior Worlds history.
He lived and trained at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., for five years, which would lead him to win the U.S. Olympic trials in 2008 and the Pan Am games in 2008.
“It’s a crazy selection process, and I wasn’t selected to go compete in Beijing,” he said. “I did not make the team in 2012, so I decided to pursue a professional career path of some sort.”
In total, he competed in 12 world cups and six world championships in more than 30 countries.
House is a Gainesville High School graduate who today has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and public relations from Ashford University. He previously served as a high-performance canoe/kayak coach for the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club before assuming the position as venue manager for the Olympic park.
House entered the bid for the venue to host the Pan Am games last year. The Lanier site beat out bids from Montreal, Canada, and Curitiba, Brazil.
The championships are the latest in a long line of international events Lake Lanier has held since the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Most recently, it served as host to the U.S. National Team trials and team trials for Canada.
For House, bringing the Pan Am games to Gainesville is coming full circle.
“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It makes me very nostalgic. I want to be out there competing, and a lot of the same people I competed against will be here. It’s fun seeing them and reconnecting.”
House has been venue manager two years now, and he said the current $1.1 million renovation project at the park is one of the highlights.
“But the big highlight now is seeing the community rally around this place,” he said. “I think the community cares more about this venue now than they ever have — ever, except maybe in 1996. So that’s a really big highlight and it’s great to see.”