Take me to the river 

That former ditch is scheduled this spring to host Olympic hopefuls
competing in flatwater sprint trials. Formerly known by the name of the
river itself — the Canadian — the seven-mile section south of downtown
was renamed the “Oklahoma River” in 2004; filled with water, thanks to
the installation of low-water dams; and its banks have been lined with
boathouses bearing names of Oklahoma’s energy titans.

Knopp, who is executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, said activity on the river began to ramp up about six years ago, in conjunction with the opening of the Rand Elliot-designed Chesapeake Boathouse.

Devon Energy followed with its own boathouse, one of the “most advanced boathouses of its kind in the world,” Knopp said, along with Chesapeake Finish Line Tower and other boathouses. A couple of years ago, the river was designated as an Olympic training site.

“Once the Chesapeake Boathouse opened, we were able to create all these programs and events that brought people to the river, and that created a momentum,” he said.

The momentum continues. Two additional boathouses are in the works: one, a partnership between the University of Central Oklahoma and Chesapeake, and the other by the University of Oklahoma.

The Sandridge Youth Pavilion, tentatively scheduled for completion around 2014, will be a venue for the foundation’s children’s programs and serve as a gateway for “adventure” activities, like zip lining, indoor surfing and climbing.

The MAPS 3 program includes funding for wind screens, a white-water course and 500 meters of the river lighting for night racing. The improvements will be one of the first major completed MAPS 3 projects, with lighting installation beginning in May, Knopp said.

“It is going to be unlike anywhere in the world when we are complete, thanks to the private support, but also the MAPS 3 project is going to infuse a lot of energy into the project,” Knopp said.

Starting line

The white-water facility, planned for east of the boathouse area, will draw water from a holding pond, send it down several channels and resemble an Olympic course in that it will be fully customizable, in terms of water velocity and obstacles.

“It’s a project we’ve prioritized because of what we think it can do for the river and the city,” Knopp said recently at a Greater Oklahoma City Chamber event.

Although the Boathouse Foundation’s children’s programs will expand greatly once the Sandridge Youth Pavilion is completed, several kid-friendly activities are already underway.

“While most people know about our facilities and events that we host, many people don’t realize the Boathouse District really does have something for everyone,” said Kelley McGuire, the foundation’s director of youth outreach.

One such program is the River Sport Youth League, a scholastic league for rowing and kayaking, mainly for atrisk students.

“We make sure everybody who wants to be involved at the river has a chance to do that, whether it’s through a scholarship program or through the River Sport Youth League,” McGuire said.

‘On our way’

Bryan Volpenhein, head coach of the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center and Olympic gold medalist, said it is important to get young people involved in such activities — not just to keep them healthy, but to produce the next generation of Olympians in Oklahoma City.

“To put that in context of what you could do here in Oklahoma, getting kids out on the water rowing early, you will produce some Olympic rowers and kayakers and canoers,” Volpenhein said. “It will happen. The more exposure they get to the sport, the more kids are going to love it, the more participation, the more medals you’re going to bring in.”

As the foundation prepares for next month’s Olympic trials, Knopp said, the story of Oklahoma City’s transformation over the past two decades is encapsulated by looking at how far the river district has come in such a short amount of time.

“We really think we’re only at the start,” Knopp said. “There’s going to be a lot of tremendously exciting things coming up as we learn to be this riverfront community. We’re well on our way to creating life-changing experiences for people of all ages in all walks of life.”

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