Oklahoma City Becoming A Hot Spot For Rowing

Wednesday, October 10th 2007, 3:49 pm

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Mike Knopp spent enough time walking through weeds and biking through a dried-up drainage ditch to come to a startling conclusion: What a perfect spot for a rowing course.

The only thing missing was water.

That same spot, now a controlled waterway stretching along the southern edge of downtown Oklahoma City, will host an exhibition event this week featuring Olympic-caliber rowers from around the world.

Only a few years ago, the river existed only in Knopp's imagination.

``I spent some time essentially in the weeds. It was not a part of town or not an area that a lot of people ventured out in and actually looked at it,'' Knopp said.

``For years, even before the project, you could see this straight stretch of land that had rocks on the side, and occasionally when it would rain, there would be a lot of rain and it would sort of fill up and you could see, gosh this could be something some day.''

Once upon a time, the river had been a reality, perhaps too much so. Flowing a little too close to downtown, the river flooded several times in the 1930s, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was called in during the 1950s to create a new path a little farther south.

That resulted in the riverbed sitting dry for decades until a tax increase in the late 1990s spurred a series of projects including the construction of a new ballpark for the city's Triple-A baseball franchise, the Ford Center that temporarily housed the NBA's New Orleans Hornets for the past two seasons and the river revitalization.

Less than three years after the river was dedicated, Oklahoma City is quickly becoming a hub for Olympic-style water sports. Beyond the USA Rowing World Challenge this week, the Oklahoma River has been chosen to host the Olympic trials for canoeing and kayaking next spring.

``We have gone from the Dust Bowl to the River City,'' said Pat Downes, economic development director for the Oklahoma City Riverfront Redevelopment Authority. ``We have gone from mowing to rowing on the river, and all in a very short period of time.''

Oklahoma City's ascension in the rowing world has been so quick because of that old real estate adage: location, location, location.

The course is just south of downtown and the city's Bricktown entertainment district, making it friendly for spectators, sponsors and the media. Unlike in Europe, where elite rowers and kayakers can routinely find crowds of 30,000 or more fans at world-class events, there are relatively few urban settings in the United States that can provide the same atmosphere.

``Anywhere that our athletes go where there's more people, more excitement, more enthusiasm, that's better,'' said David Yarborough, executive director of the U.S. association for canoeing and kayaking.

In only its third year, the Head of the Oklahoma Regatta hosted by Oklahoma City University drew 30,000 spectators last year and will be a part of the festivities this weekend, interspersed with exhibitions featuring teams from the U.S., Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Switzerland and Moldova.

Not bad, considering Knopp called rowing ``a sport that was foreign to most people in Oklahoma City'' only a few years ago.

Before envisioning the river project's rowing potential, Knopp had become resigned to the belief the sport wouldn't be a major part of his life after his family moved from Maryland to Oklahoma during his senior year of high school.

He was able to continue pursuing the sport, which he started admiring while watching the U.S. Naval Academy team practice, on a club team at Oklahoma State and then on the side while he went through law school at the University of Oklahoma. After he got his law degree, he got involved in the small rowing club in Oklahoma City that met at Lake Overholser.

Knopp and his wife worked to grow the sport with the help of a volunteer base that kept increasing, and eventually his vision of the dry riverbed as a rowing venue flourished _ with the help of a timely rainfall.

The night before a groundbreaking for the first of three dams that would make the river a reality, Knopp remembers there being ``a big rain'' and, in it, an opportunity to let officials share his vision.

``We had enough water at that groundbreaking, so we assembled enough people to put several boats on the water and when they broke ground for that first dam, there was rowing going on back and forth,'' Knopp said. ``I think we sold a lot of people on that concept.''

Chesapeake Energy Corp., an Oklahoma City-based natural gas producer, joined with other donors to back a $3.5 million boathouse designed to look like a rowing shell floating on the river when viewed from above.

To Knopp, that was the turning point for what had been a low-budget, volunteer-based effort to support rowing in the city.

``It really sent a message to the rowing community that we're serious, that we have a lot of great ideas and support and it's really allowed us to do a lot of things _ to expand the sport beyond where we ever thought we could go this soon,'' Knopp said.

Additional boathouses are in the works for three university programs, including the one Knopp now coaches at Oklahoma City University, and there's also a proposal to build a whitewater paddling course nearby.

Beyond that, the river is central to a redevelopment project for the downtown area that's expected to draw about $3 billion in investment to revitalize a neglected area between the river and a section of Interstate 40 that's being realigned to run farther south.

City planners hope the river will attract people to live in new residential areas that would be built as part of the plan.

``It's kind of the last thing people would've thought to do in Oklahoma City a few years ago,'' Knopp said. ``But it's sort of ironic that people would want to come here because of our water.''

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