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Paddling, rowing clubs keep Olympic spirit moving forward
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The Lake Lanier Rowing Club junior crew takes to the water for practice at Clarks Bridge Park. The crew consists of students from local high schools. From left they are Zac Jansen, Evan Meeks, Victor Corral and Jeffrey Jones.

Starting and maintaining a club isn’t as easy as it sounds.

At least it wasn’t for the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club or the Lake Lanier Rowing Club. But both have maintained their memberships and grown their success since their creation in conjunction with the 1996 Olympics 20 years ago.

Connie Hagler, one of the founders of the LCKC, knows firsthand how hard it was to get the ball rolling and keep it going.

“It’s been a struggle,” she said.

Hagler credits the club’s longevity to a focus on the structure when it was formed. She and her husband, Richard, joined to “get back on the water” after leaving Georgia Tech’s Outdoor Recreation club, where they would often go whitewater canoeing.

“We thought flatwater (racing) was as exciting as watching grass grow,” Hagler said.

When the Olympics came to town, things got a bit more exciting. Hagler recalled sleepless nights, driving athletes to and from the airport at all hours of the day and getting ready for the big events.

“There was just so much to do,” she said.

About 10 to 15 volunteers worked for about a year and a half making everything come together. “It was a really neat time,” she said.

When the torch and everything that came with it left, it became apparent the venue needed some work. The grandstands, once held up with poles, were gone. All that was left was some bark, mulch and a fire hydrant. There weren’t even bathrooms.

The club itself also suffered after the excitement of the Olympics died down.

“It just deflated,” Hagler said.

She said the club also went through money problems. When the LCKC first formed, the focus was on the kids. Since most of the members were parents, there wasn’t a lot of money to be passed around.

“I think people knew how important the club was,” she said. So the club’s leaders set out to revamp the venue and make it a place fit for world-class champions. They hired a top-tier coach and called in athletes from across the world to come and mentor their young paddlers.

The club would need an additional $1.4 million for what they needed to make the venue what it needed to be to host a world championship.

“I’ve been all over the world, but the best place in the world is here,” she said.

‘IT GAVE THEM CONFIDENCE’

It was important to her, and the club’s mission, to create a living legacy.

“With a treasure like (the venue), you have a great responsibility to steward it,” Hagler said. “It’s a tool that we should utilize, and a huge opportunity. People all over the world want to come train (in Gainesville). It is invaluable.”

Since canoeing and kayaking are not popular sports in the United States, many top athletes would go overseas to compete in countries like Canada, Japan, Russia and Croatia, where they wouldn’t just represent a state but their country, Hagler said. Both her son and daughter were involved in the sport as youngsters.

“It’s an unbelievably neat opportunity for our kids,” she said. “(Program graduates) are all contributing at a very high level.”

When it was time for those kids in the program to grow up and apply to colleges, having “world champion kayaker-canoeist” on their applications didn’t hurt.

“(The club) has done so many things for those kids,” she said. “It gave them confidence.”

Since its founding, the club has seen its members shine in competitive meets on a national and international level. The LCKC’s first Olympian was paddler Tim Hornsby, who competed in the 2012 Olympics in London.

This past spring, Hornsby and several other paddlers took part in the U.S. Olympic team trials and Pan American Championships, both held at Lake Lanier.

In the Pan Am Championships, Ian Ross won a silver medal in senior men’s 500-meter canoe. He and club teammate and brother Gavin Ross finished fourth in the senior two-man canoe 1,000-meter final.

LCKC’s Farran Smith also earned silver in the senior women’s two-person kayak at 1,000 meters. Stanton Collins and Aaron Mullican of Gainesville were members of the bronze-medal-winning senior men four-man kayak team.

Other Lanier paddlers competing in the senior events were Ben Hefner, Chris Miller and Alex McLain. Junior competitors included Owen Farley-Klacik, Owen Ozaki, Dillon Kimsey, Smith, Kota Teasley, Lisa Swenson, Dustin Grattan, Riley Brunner, Michael Olson, Kaley Martin and Nik Miller in Paracanoe.

Hagler served as president of the club and the executive director before retiring in 2007.

“I was tired,” Hagler said, after putting in 80-hour work weeks at the lakeside venue for more than 10 years.

Now the club holds several events per year, as well as recreational opportunities for people who may not be interested in serious competing. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent from the boathouse, and the club holds moonlight paddles once or twice a month. For more information, visit lckc.org.

ROWING GETS A FOOTHOLD

The Lake Lanier Rowing Club’s focus has been on instruction and getting people onto the water for fun and leisure. Jack Pyburn, one of the founders of the club, knows rowing can seem daunting.

“I think it’s misconceived as an esoteric sport,” said Pyburn, an architect who now lives in midtown Atlanta. “It’s a misfortunate misconception.”

He was involved in creating plans for what we now know as the Lake Lanier Olympic Park starting in 1984 when he bought a rowing shell as a way to exercise. Prior to the Olympics, he had been rowing for years up and down the long stretches of Lanier.

He studied the world rowing federation’s handbook and taught himself the things he needed to know in order to create a rowing venue fit for Olympians.

Before the games were set for Gainesville, Atlanta’s Olympic organizers considered options for rowing and paddling events in Stone Mountain and in Rockdale County. With the knowledge he had, Pyburn conceptualized a possible layout for a Lake Lanier option to present to the committee. While the committee “wouldn’t give (them) the time of day,” Pyburn said, he and other Gainesville representatives traveled to Indianapolis to meet with rowing officials. Once they showed the plan, “the rest is history,” he said.

Besides the competitive side of the sport, there is also the educational side. The club’s focus is still on instructing people how to row.

The sport isn’t popular in the Southeast, though it’s well-established in New England and the Northwest.

“Rowing is such a unique sport,” said Tracey Tallman, a junior rowing coach. “It’s not very prevalent.”

Yet the course remains a popular site for collegiate teams to compete and train, and the park’s improvements have enhanced its allure.

“It’s the only venue from the Olympics that is still being used for its original use,” former rowing club president Duane Schlereth said.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the rowing club played host to the American Collegiate Rowing Association’s ninth annual Championship Regatta, drawing top rowers from colleges and universities across the nation. More than 1,600 athletes from 64 colleges took part.

“The course, because it’s sheltered by the trees on either side, provides fair competition for all lanes,” Schlereth said recently. “That’s one of the things that makes this one of the best courses in the world, and then having the improvements to the tower, the bathrooms, the new concession stands and the added disability access … that was a wonderful improvement.”

The club also took part in the Southeastern Regional conference in 2015. In the spring, over a thousand kids from colleges and high schools across the nation come to train at the venue.

“We participate in regattas across the country,” Schlereth said.

Learn-to-Row, a course designed to teach everything about rowing from the ground up, is taught every summer. This year, the only class with spaces available is set for Aug. 9-20 and meets from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8:30-10:30 a.m. Saturdays.

The classes fill up quickly. More information can be found on the club’s website, lakelanierrowing.org.

Once the class is over, you can get a discounted membership to the club for the year.

“(People who take the class) get to see the venue,” Tallman said. She is going on her second year as the coach for the junior team and just took her rowers to the summer USRowing Club nationals in Ohio last week.

“There were over 60 boats there, and we placed higher than the middle,” Tallman said. It was their first time competing in such an event.

Rowing is also known as a way to get your muscles moving.

“It’s a wonderful way to exercise,” Pyburn said. “If you’re comfortable in the water ... it’s not something to be scared of.”

Pyburn even said it’s “a little easier” than riding a bike, since you get used to the rhythm that rowing has.

“Rowing by itself is a great full-body workout,” Schlereth said. “(Rowers) are some of the most fit people you will come across.”

It doesn’t have to be an individual workout, either.

“You can be by yourself, or you can have up to seven people in a boat with you,” Tallman said. It’s also a great way to meet new people, she said, and get out of that 9-to-5 office funk.

“It’s a life outside of the office,” Schlereth said. He mentioned that he regularly sees bald eagles while he’s out on his rows.

The club also holds a Taste of Gainesville in September to promote the club and educate attendees on what it means for the community.

Robin Millard is the new president for the rowing club, taking over Schlereth’s place June 30.

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