"Big League" means different things to different people but here in Oklahoma City, the expression represents the transformative process and collaborative spirit that brings top-tier lifestyle amenities to the community. A few short years ago, not many people would have thought Oklahoma City would be home to one of the top teams in professional basketball, destination of a Marathon that hosts 27,000 runners while raising a million dollars to support the Oklahoma Memorial and of course become home to USA Canoe/Kayak and a World-class paddlesports and rowing venue.
When I started traveling to Oklahoma City four years ago, the public vote for MAPS 3, the continuation of the city's penny sales tax that would fund eight "quality of life" projects including a $60 million investment in the Oklahoma River and bring a whitewater venue to downtown, was just a few weeks away.
The community's enthusiasm and appetite for progress translated to a "yes" for MAPS 3 and a "Big League" opportunity for paddlesports.
The idea of constructing a whitewater river where one does not initially exist is certainly more common today compared to when I started racing in whitewater slalom in the early 1980's. Back then, the idea of paddling on an artificial channel in the U.S. seemed like a distant dream.
Bold vision and hard work led to the development of channels in North Carolina and Maryland but as I didn't spend time at those venues during design and construction, I never understood how these venues really came together. I would see pictures and hear reports in certain phases of construction but without being on the ground, I never gained true focus of the project's final outcome.
Different story here in Oklahoma City. Check out this short video to see the 1:12 scale model of the Oklahoma City whitewater course - you'll not only get a sense for the actual whitewater but the process driving this incredible project:
With USA Canoe/Kayak's involvement in Oklahoma City's whitewater center, the opportunity to work with Scott Shipley and the Design team has been a fantastic learning experience. First, the standard for navigating through concepts, ideas and details within the talented and diverse group of team members is set high. The design process has been innovative and inclusive yet focused and decisive. Second, having worked at the Oklahoma City Boathouse District for two years now, it's easy for me to see how the end product will fit into the spirit of the venue and the city.
With this project coming into focus, it's exciting to be building Oklahoma City into the near-term plans of our National Slalom Program merging both opportunities for the sport with the progress of Oklahoma City. Therein lies the sweet spot of Big League Whitewater.
One of the High Performance metrics that I pay attention to is the number of our canoe/kayak athletes who continue to train and compete into their collegiate years. Unforutnately, this number is far too low in the U.S. as I've watched many bright junior racing careers come to a halt at the end of high school for lack of university-level opportunities in paddlesports.
The development of collegiate paddling opportunities for prospective U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes is critical to USA Canoe/Kayak's High Performance program. Most of our international competitors benefit from the financial support of their governments including educational opportunities within the university system. As the "Under-23" World Championship events (targeting ages 19-23) increase in importantance within the International Canoe Federation, collegiate paddlesports programs here in the U.S. must play a stronger role in Olympic and Paralympic journeys.
While cultivating university-level opportunities is a long-term initiative in the U.S., the sport is making encouraging progress. Just over three years ago, Oklahoma City University became the first University in the country to make Canoe/Kayak a collegiate varsity sport and support the program with scholarships opportunities. This program aligned with the development the Oklahoma City Boathouse District and the opening of the Devon Boathouse and High Performance Center, which serves as home to Oklahoma City University's Canoe/Kayak and Rowing teams.
Now, more good news comes from Chris Barlow, 1992 Olympian in Sprint Kayaking and Head Coach of the San Diego Canoe/Kayak Team. One of USA Canoe/Kayak's Platinum Gold level clubs, San Diego Canoe/Kayak Team has reached an agreement with Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) that ecourages canoe/kayak athletes to pursue their goals on the water and in the classroom with the opportunity to be considered for for tuition support while attending PLNU.
Read more about the San Diego Canoe/Kayak Team/PLNU agreement ----> HERE
While there is still much work to do in creating more collegiate paddling opportunities, it's important to recognize positive momentum when it happens - many thanks to San Diego Canoe/Kayak Team and PLNU.
Such progress isn't just a victory for our athletes but the schools win too. Not only are Oklahoma City University and PLNU recognized as leaders and key partners within the Olympic Family but they stand apart in the academic community too with unique and creative programs and ambassadors which resonate with potential students, Alumni, faculty and staff.
While a sustainable Collegiate program doesn not happen overnight, our Clubs are now better positioned to develop partnerships with colleges and universities in their communities that build on the success we are seeing in California and Oklahoma.
The development of community waterways remains a huge opporutnity for Mayors around the United States. Few have embraced this on such a grand scale like that of Oklahoma City and its Mayor, Mick Cornett.
I had the the opportunity to sit down recently with Mayor Cornett on his television program, "Mayor's Monthly." We discuss investment and progress at the Oklahoma River and what it means to USA Canoe/Kayak:
The interview starts at Minute 7.
Bringing change to an enterprise does not come easy but over the past few months, we've realized critical organizational growth and sustainability at USA Canoe/Kayak. Our relocation to Oklahoma City about a year and half ago was a major turning point for us and our partnership with the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation brought shared services in key areas, access to new resources and a venue that represents a bold vision for the sport.
The Oklahoman recently featured a column and video that reports on the latest developments at the Oklahoma River. Just click here --> Impact of the Oklahoma River on USA Canoe/Kayak
As a bonus video, check out Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett's TEDMED speech in Washington, DC this past spring. It captures the spirit and values that have transformed Oklahoma City and invited a culture innovation into our community. (Grateful for the Canoe/Kayak mention, Mr. Mayor - thank you!)
I spend a lot of time thinking about one's journey to begin canoeing or kayaking.
On this particular Friday evening, a plastic kayak is resting on the dock about six inches above the waters of the Oklahoma River. Sitting in the boat on the dock is Ezra, an 8 year-old who traveled to Oklahoma City from southern California to participate in the Endeavor Games, a multi-sport event geared towards adaptive and Paralympic sports hosted by our friends at University of Central Oklahoma. Reverting to my default setting as a paddling coach leading a first-timer through a short orientation, I ask Ezra to tell me his plan for propelling his boat through the water.
"No problem," Ezra says, "I'm going to put this hand on the paddle like this [placing his right hand on the paddle shaft] and put the other side of the paddle here [tucks the paddle shaft underneath his left armpit where most of us would have a left arm attached] and then go like this [he synchs his right arm paddling motion with a full body contortion on the left side to move the paddle through the water]."
"Awesome," I say, "Off you go."
I push Ezra's boat into the water and just stand in there in amazement as he picks up speed and confidence moving towards the far river bank.
New challenge conquered.
For Ezra, the incredible momentum of acquiring unlikely life experience and skill acquisition spanning eight years strikes again.
For me, ideas about why and how we paddle on the water expand and progress. It's precisely this moment that I am reminded of why I signed up for this job and how fortunate I am to be here during this time. I told the leadership at the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation this was my single favorite day in Oklahoma City to date.
When our Board Chair, Bob Lally, and I lobbied for USA Canoe/Kayak to serve as the U.S. National Governing Body for the new Paralympic sport of ParaCanoe, neither of us were sure where this journey would lead us. But, it felt like something we needed to do. And so far, we've launched a program that is gaining new awareness, attracting new leadership, generating new resources and ultimately driving better performance from our athletes.
ParaCanoe will make it's debut on the Paralympic program at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In addition to moments like the one we shared with Ezra a few weeks ago, the last six months have produced some outstanding results for USA Canoe/Kayak. We've increased organizational stability, financial position and diversity in leadership while aligning more resources with targeted High Performance support, new competitive opportunities for our programs and partnerships that will grow the base, impact and sustainability. We are doing really good things for the sport today and yet, we haven't shared this progress with you.
So over the next few weeks, we will make a better efforts to share these steps forward and what they mean to our program.
Thank you for your support.