GAINESVILLE — The nation’s greatest canoe and kayak athletes have flocked to Gainesville this weekend to compete in one of the biggest challenges they may face.
The U.S. Canoe/Kayak National Team Trials are being held at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park at 3105 Clarks Bridge Road in Gainesville. Morgan House, manager of the venue, said the park was selected specifically for the event because of its high quality.
“The U.S. National Team headquarters is in Oklahoma City,” House said. “But they decided to come here for the national team trials. Oklahoma City has invested over $100 million in their facilities, but they still decided to come here.”
The national team trials are the first of several major canoe and kayak events at the park. The Canadian National Team trials are May 4-8, bringing more 2016 Olympic hopefuls to Gainesville.
Aaron Mann, director of communications for the USA Canoe/Kayak National Team, said Lake Lanier was chosen for the U.S. trials “because it is a world-class facility” and because it was scheduled to hold another major championship this spring.
It will play host to the Pan American Championships May 19-22, which Mann said are the continental Olympic Qualifier for the Americas.
In order to compete at the Pan American Championships, competitors have to win at the national team trials.
House said Gainesville beat out venues in Canada and Brazil for the honor of the Pan Am games.
The Gainesville- Hall ’96 Foundation board submitted a bid to bring the games to Lake Lanier.
Kit Dunlap, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce president and member of the foundation board, said Gainesville was chosen in part because of its solid national and international reputation.
“We have a wonderful reputation because of the ’96 Olympics and all of the other national and international events we’ve hosted in those 20 years,” Dunlap said.
“The water is also just perfect. Of all the fancy places that could have it and host it, they really, really like this water.”
House said he believes the Lake Lanier Olympic Park offers athletes from across the country and the world one of the best venues to practice and compete.
“I’ve seen almost every course in the world myself,” House previously told The Times. “I personally have competed on them. And we have the best. We really do.”
The Pan American Championships have never been held in Gainesville, and last year’s national team trials were held in Oklahoma City.
House said he doesn’t believe Gainesville has ever been the host of the U.S. national team trials, but if it has, it was more than a decade ago.
Dunlap said weekend crowds will surely include the athletes and their teams and supporters, but the number of spectators is hard to predict.
“It’ll depend on rain of course,” she said. “If it’s really bad weather, you won’t have the same crowd.”
The Lake Lanier Olympic Park is currently in its first phase of construction, a $1.6 million renovation adding a butterfly garden, wheelchair-accessible walkways and updates to the judges’ tower, restrooms and the concession area.
The work will not be entirely finished for a while, but House is optimistic it will be “99 percent done” by the Pan Am games.
House said while economic impact is hard to predict, he expects more than $2 million to be spent in the community between the three events, with athletes, coaches and followers staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants.
Dunlap said these events are a good way to increase awareness of the Olympic Park not only as an athletic event venue but as a concert space, wedding venue, public park and more.
“I think it points out the importance of the Lake Lanier Olympic Park and all that goes on out there,” she said. “When you get the attention on a local, state and international level, it also gives exposure to Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club and their events, Lake Lanier Rowing events and all the many things they do out there.”
House echoed Dunlap’s sentiments, saying the trials and championships are good exposure for the park and the community.
“It’s huge for our community because we’re showing the community that we bring in the top-level athletes from literally around the world, and we get to show them that we are the hospitality capital of the world,” he said. “It’s just great for everybody to experience Gainesville and great for Gainesville to experience these athletes.”