New rowing center promises to make waves in OKC

It wasn't all that long ago the North Canadian River more resembled a cavernous ditch filled with sandbars, rocks and weeds, and an occasional trickle of murky water than a flourishing waterway.

By all accounts, the river was a hard-to-ignore eyesore that distracted from any attempts downtown Oklahoma City made to redefine itself as a viable tourist attraction and business destination. A New York Times article from April of this year aptly described the old river as "a scar through the city's heart."


So how incredible is it the North Canadian " renamed the Oklahoma River back in 2004 " has almost overnight become the source for pumping lifeblood into OKC's heart?

Over the past 12 months, Oklahoma City's rejuvenated river area and its facilities have hosted the USA Rowing World Challenge and the U.S. Olympic trials, along with a handful of other high-profile events.

"It seems like yesterday I was walking through the weeds down there, and now, seeing where it has come in a relatively short time, to a point where it is receiving international attention " that's pretty amazing," said Mike Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation.

OKC's success story got even better this past week when USRowing announced the Oklahoma River would be the site for a new high-performance center that will help develop future generations of Olympic-caliber rowers. The center's headquarters will be in the Devon Boathouse when it is completed in May 2010. But it will actually begin operations next month in the Chesapeake Boathouse.

"There is a cutting edge of innovation when it comes to Oklahoma City and what they have done in developing the water and the green space there," said Glenn Merry, executive director for USRowing, based out of Princeton, N.J.

"The High Performance Center is an emerging concept for USRowing, and this will be the first of its kind in the country. We will focus on training the next generation of world-class rowers with an emphasis on the 'Under-23' athlete pool. We also see a future where Oklahoma City serves as the national center for coaching education for USRowing."

The new high-performance center, which will be part of a partnership between USRowing, the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation and Oklahoma City University, will feature a residency program for prospective Under 23 athletes " both male and female. The center will eventually be incorporated at all of the on-site boathouses.

While the Under-23 program will be the main focus, the new high-performance center will also offer programs such as junior and senior national team selection camps, elite training camps and additional training opportunities for prospective international athletes.

"We've had some great events this last year, and really worked to build a résumé that is conducive to international competition. To be rewarded with this deal is very exciting because we believe we are going to have one of the world's premier aquatic venues," Knopp said. "Now, we need to take this opportunity, maximize it and really show the world Oklahoma City is deserving of such a great deal."

Although the Chesapeake facility, which opened in 2006, is the only boathouse currently in operation, the new $10 million Devon Boathouse will feature more than 40,000 square feet of training, educational and boat storage space. Plans for the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma boathouses are still in development.

The Oklahoma River boathouse community is part of an overall master development plan that not only includes the three new boathouses, but permanent lighting for night racing, a finish line tower and grandstands to accommodate larger crowds.

"It's great to see what Oklahoma City has done in such a short time. They have made rowing more than just a traditional Olympic sport," Merry said. "What we've noticed about Oklahoma City is there is a real community awareness. People come to the events, engage the athletes while they are here and really demonstrate their support.

"The waterfront here has become the centerpiece for the entire Oklahoma City area. It's been fun to see how that whole area has evolved."

An eyesore no more. "Jay C. Upchurch