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Commentary: Olympic venue is asset with unknown future
0711connie hagler2
Connie Hagler

It's been 15 years since the 1996 Olympics came to Gainesville. A lot of great things have happened in the meantime. Thousands have enjoyed the Olympic venue and their lives have been enriched by the beauty of the lake, great competition, activity, training, discipline, organizing clubs and events, and friendships built through rowing and canoe kayak. We have moved from a point where we talked about what the "Olympic Dream" can do for our community as we talk to potential sponsors to a describing what it has done.

The foundation of the achievements at the venue has been on the shoulders of the volunteers on the boards of the two clubs — the Lanier Canoe 2003 organizing committee and the Gainesville Hall '96 Foundation. We live in a great place, and these groups have done a great job.

The Contractual Services Agreement that the Gainesville Hall 96 Foundation, Lake Lanier Rowing Club and Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club signed as we moved into the venue, which was donated to Gainesville-Hall County by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, required that we run Olympic legacy programs and events in the Olympic disciplines of rowing and canoe kayak. We have done both well.

To measure the program side of that requirement, we can look to the first group of young Olympic legacy athletes — Olympic boatholders. They are now contributing young adults, and, wow, what contributions they are making. Just from that first group of young volunteers/athletes, we have a physician, a veterinarian, a minister, a missionary, an engineer, a Masters degree special education teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, an owner of an industrial design studio, a vice president for an insurance wholesale company, and finally, one who graduated from Georgia Tech, has already built a cancer center at the Medical College of Georgia and is now director of facilities.

The coaching staff at the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club has changed. In 1996, we had to recruit and hire coaches from the outside because no one knew enough about the sport locally to coach our youth. We still have a top-level international coach, but the rest of the club staff are locals who have learned the sport at Lanier and are now giving back to the new youth in the program. We have some of the best coaches in the country among those who volunteer for the BBI Junior Olympic program each spring and fall and the club program coaches.

The Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club has won the national championships club title nine times. Next month, Aug. 4-7, we will be competing for the 10th national club championships title on Lake Lanier. We have hundreds of youth who have earned the title of national champion or national team member, and we are on the verge of having a few athletes earn an Olympic team berth.

Our true wealth is in our families and children. The investment in the venue has served many local families and children well.

We have an outstanding record on the event side of the Contractual Services Agreement, as well. Lanier has hosted hundreds of local, national and international events bringing millions of dollars into the local economy. At the international level, we hosted the only International Canoe Federation World Cup to be held outside of Europe in 2001 and the Lanier Canoe 2003 World Championships stands as one of the best world championships ever held. The outpouring of sponsorship and volunteer support from a community the size of Gainesville was staggering.

Best in the world, by definition, is not easily achieved and is rapidly changing.

We do a lot of things very well at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue, and for a long time we did a lot of things best in the U.S., but there is a new venue in the mix that is playing a slightly different game, grabbing the international spotlight and challenging the rest of the world to catch up.

Take a look at Oklahoma City. The current investment there is over $800 million and growing. The money is paying for multiple boathouses at several venues, college scholarships, professional staff, state-of-the-art technology, a 1,000-meter-long windbreak, video screens, lights for nighttime competition and training, state-of-the-art finish towers, wedding and event facilities, artificial whitewater venue, canals, hotels, museums and events.

The investment they are making in Oklahoma City is really the same thing we have done here, just at a different level. When you talk to the leadership in Oklahoma City, you find that the investment is in economic development and quality of life for their community. Their SPLOST equivalent and local companies have funded these improvements. The community leadership looked at the Oklahoma River, which in its natural state is a bit homely compared to the magnificent Lake Lanier, and are turning it into a breath-taking destination.

The improvements have brought in new companies and jobs to Oklahoma as well as improved the quality of life and pride in the city. A similar transformation is happening in Sarasota, Fla. Both of these magnificent venues will have trouble earning the international course certification we already have at Lake Lanier because of the physical constraints of their lakes.

What next? Well, it's up to us. Gainesville and Hall County usually doesn't shy away from competition, and we like to win. I'll bet someone will be writing a great piece 15 years from now that tells the rest of a great story about the 1996 Olympic Legacy on Lake Lanier.

Connie Hagler, a longtime supporter of the Olympic venue, is the former executive director of the Lanier Canoe Kayak Club and former executive director of Lanier Canoe 2003.

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