US Sprint Canoe/Kayak National Team Trials
Senior Men's Kayak
Chris Miller, Stanton Collins, Aaron Mullican
Senior Women's Kayak
Senior Men's Canoe
Ben Hefner, Ian Ross and Gavin Ross
Junior Men Kayak
Junior Women Kayak
Junior Men Canoe
Junior Women Canoe
For a group of local Olympic hopefuls, the next four weeks are the biggest of their paddling careers, and they’ll have home-lake advantage.
The defining stretch for seven Lake Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club (LCKC) paddlers kicks off today and Saturday with the U.S. Canoe/Kayak National Team Trials and concludes May 19-22 with the Pan American Games. Both events are on Lake Lanier.
This week, seven senior LCKC paddlers — Ben Hefner, Chris Miller, Stanton Collins, Aaron Mullican, Alex McLain and brothers Ian and Gavin Ross — can earn a spot on the U.S. national team with wins at the trials. Winners of events at the team trials qualify for the Pan Am Games. Paddlers who win events at both the team trials and the Pan American Games automatically earn a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Since its inception in 1996, after the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, LCKC has produced one Olympian, Tim Hornsby in 2012. That number is expected to rise, possibly significantly this year.
Eighteen LCKC paddlers overall will be competing this week for coach Claudiu Ciur, including Nik Miller, a paralympic hopeful who will be competing in men’s senior 200 meters.
Ciur, a former world champion paddler, took over the LCKC in 2009 and had seen the club’s popularity surge to its high point in recent years. The club’s competitive sprint program has increased by 50 percent in the past two years, with corresponding growth seen in the youth and masters programs, LCKC officials said.
Ciur grins when he talks about not only the increased interest in the club, but also the number of elite-level competitors the club has produced in recent years. Each of seven senior competitors is considered a top-tier contender. Miller, Collins and McLain all won gold medals at the 2014 Pan Am Games, and Hefner is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the Senior Men’s Canoe.
“This is definitely the crucible, make-it-or-break-it time, for sure,” Hefner said. “Definitely nervous, definitely anxious, even more so this year. But I also feel that I’m more prepared this year than I ever have been before for trials and international competition. I have literally done everything I can.”
At 6-foot-5, Hefner is a hulking, former part-time engineering teacher with a physics degree. He once had post-padding career aspirations of being an astronaut, before finding out he was too tall. He’s planning on studying ocean engineering in grad school, but for now, Brazil, site of this year’s Summer Olympics, is squarely on his mind.
Hefner will be competing in multiple canoe events this week and is considered the favorite in the C1 200-meter race, an event he’s never won at trials or nationals.
“I’ve always come in second,” Hefner said. “I’ve been coming in second since I was 17-years-old in the Senior 200.”
One of those defeats came at the hands of his current coach, Ciur, back around 2010.
“He does give me a hard time about it sometimes,” Hefner said with a laugh. “But I would beat him now if we raced.”