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House on the verge of Olympic berth
Gainesville native Morgan House, center, needs to beat US teammate Rami Zur, left, in this weekend’s Flatwater Racing World Cup in Szeged, Hungary to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. - photo by For The Times

It’s been almost 12 years since Gainesville’s Morgan House stood on the shores of Lake Lanier and gazed with intrigue at kayakers paddling their way to the finish line in the 1996 Olympic Games.

The Olympic dream began then for House, a product of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, and could be fulfilled at this weekend’s Flatwater Racing World Cup in Szeged, Hungary.

House, who came in fourth in his K-1 Men’s 500 meter heat Thursday, has one obstacle standing between him and Beijing, United States teammate Rami Zur.

To be Olympic-bound, it isn’t necessary for House to win his semifinal and finals race Saturday, it’s only necessary that he beat Zur.

One more step for a young man whose been climbing since 1996.

“I know he’ll give it his all on Saturday in the semifinals and finals,” House’s mother Cathy Hartley said.“We are so proud of Morgan and of his efforts, determination and drive to the Olympics. That has always been his goal and he has worked very hard to get where he is.”

House has spent the past three years training at the ARCO Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. The year-round, warm-weather facility has venues for the sports of track and field, canoe/kayak, cycling, field hockey, soccer, archery and rowing and is where top U.S. athletes hone their skills for international competition.

Realizing he wanted to be good enough to pursue international competition began at the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Center in Gainesville where, as an 8-year-old, House began training with Connie and Richard Hagler.

“When we started this program we decided the youngest age we would take was 10,” said Richard Hagler, who was House’s first kayaking coach. “Well, this short little guy showed up who was eight. He (House) had been watching the activity going on on the lake while out in his backyard and decided that he wanted to be a kayaker.”

Richard Hagler said that from that point on House showed, “amazing determination and perseverance and would absolutely not except being behind anyone on the water.

“At a very early stage he had the heart of a potential champion. He wasn’t arrogant or boastful but had more tenacity, perseverance and drive than most adults that I see.”

House established his reputation in the sport of kayaking by placing fifth at the Junior World Championships in 2005 and raced in the Senior World Championships the same year. House was named the 2005 Canoe/Kayak Male Athlete of the Year for his stellar performances in those two championships.

“We have the (Lanier Canoe and Kayak Center) and Richard and Connie Hagler to thank for Morgan’s interest and desire to be a kayaker,” Hartley said. “It’s because of the club’s support and excellent training that he continued to improve. He has had coaches who have given him confidence, techniques, and encouragement.”

Fighting tears, former Lanier Canoe and Kayak Executive Director Connie Hagler said how much Hartley’s words meant to her.

“Morgan’s a special young man,” she said. “He had heart from the get go and that’s something you can’t teach. He’s remained grounded and kept his core values with him. He’s just very impressive for a young man.”

Hagler admitted, because of the Olympic stigma that came with the start of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, that she didn’t think it would take the amount of time it has for the Club to be represented in international competition.

“It’s gratifying to see the (international) dream come to fruition,” Connie Hagler said. “(Kayaking) is such a neat way to teach life lessons and values and it’s been a blessing to have had this opportunity to be part of this.”

Of the 11 United States representatives at this weekend’s World Cup, five are products of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club.

Robert Finlayson, Tim Hornsby, Katie Hagler and Emily Mickle join House as competitors in Hungary.

Each local competitor began with heats on Thursday, each made it to the semifinal round.

“We had a pretty tough heat,” Hagler said of the K-2 Women’s 500 meters that she competed in with Mickle. “We had a rough go but we learned from it.”

On the international waters, Hagler and Mickle were lined up next to, and competing against, the defending world champions from Hungary and the 100,000 fans cheering on the Hungarian twosome.

“Some of the best races to learn from are the ones you don’t fare well in,” Mickle said. “The U.S. kayaking team is lacking racing experience and what better way to get it than going against the best?”
Hagler added that the on set was, “A bit intimidating, but you have to put things in perspective. They have international experience and overall and comparatively we are all young racers.”

Both Mickle and House spoke highly of their teammate and fellow Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club trainee House, the lone local product with a legitimate shot at making the Olympic team, with both calling him an inspiration.
“Morgan is an inspiration,” Hagler said. “He looks relaxed (racing in Hungary), confident and focused.

“He’s done an incredible job regardless of the outcome and I am proud to call him my friend and teammate.”

Mickle’s words of praise mimicked Haglers: “(House) never says anything negative about his competitors and is the most encouraging of them all. It’s inspiring to watch him reach the goals he set as a child.”

For House’s first kayaking coach the magnitude of what his former pupil is on the verge of accomplishing has sunk in for him and, he hopes, will sink in for the rest of his community soon.

“It will be a while before the world really appreciates what that young man has,” Richard Hagler said. “But in the meantime, people should stand up and regard him.”

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