Long before the sun begins to warm the South Florida sweetgrass, the arpeggiated phone alarm intrusively sings its plaintive song. He fumbles for the chirping phone and temporarily reasons himself back under the comforts of the sheets.
It will be a short respite as he will soon move forward towards another long day of pushing his body to its threshold, compounding his already searing muscle soreness with an overwhelming lactate cocktail.
For Ian Ross and the rest of the athletes in training alongside him, this is the oft-repeated daily routine.
These athletes aren't throwing oblong balls in front of thousands of face-painted screaming fans gawking in anticipation of the next CTE inducing hit, nor are they hoping to sign the next multi-million dollar contract to swing bats at balls thrown at them while unceremoniously spitting tobacco on live TV.
Canoesport in America is arguably the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the U.S. Olympic program. In spite of a long-standing tradition of inclusion under the five-ring banner. Paddle sports in the States tend to garner far less acclaim than ball sports, track and field and for the most part, all the rest. Consequently, financial backing and support tend to be limited or grassroots and familial at best.
But in spite of this lack of infrastructure and support, in unlikely regional hotspots such as: Oklahoma City, Gainesville (GA), Gig Harbor (WA), Honolulu, Cape Coral (FL), San Diego and Washington D.C., groups of young American paddlers are making personal sacrifices and logging obscene amounts of training in the hopes of making the selection for the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak team bound for Rio. Along the way, they've forged deep and trusting friendships from years of traveling, competing, training, sacrificing and generally sharing their love of paddlesport and mutual hopes to represent their country on the world stage.
The Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club in Gainesville, Georgia traces it's origins to the 1996 Olympics. The subsequent legacy program continues today as the epicenter of competitive paddling in the southeast region of the United States, drawing talent from the surrounding areas and consistently turning out elite level paddlers year after year.
At the nucleus of this group are: Ian Ross, Gavin Ross, Stanton Collins, Alex Mclain, Ben Hefner, Nik Miller, Aaron Mullican and Chris Miller, along with honorary member from the Hawaii Canoe and Kayak team Kaleikoa Kaleoaloha. They comprise one of the current crops of young guns aiming to qualify for Rio in 2016, hoping to join a small, prestigious group of American paddlers who have previously and against odds, tasted Olympic glory.
It might seem that "sprint" events ranging from 200 meters to 1000 meters would not involve high training time requirements. But in order to reach the upper echelons of the game, full day commitments are essential. Working a full-time job and making the Olympics is an extremely unlikely pairing.
Days usually start on the water by 7am, with 18 km at a steady 12 -13 kph followed at 10:30 am with 8 sets of 350-meter sprints with one tennis ball attached to the underside of the hull for resistance. Then it’s on to an hour of weights before lunch. Then it’s back on the water at 3pm for 6 sets of 1000 meter sprints with a short rest in between and finished with a brisk run. Training times may total as much as 7 hours a day 7 days a week. To avoid stagnation and integrate more to their performance base through new training partners and coaches, the group will often travel abroad to pair off with other aspiring Olympians or in some cases, past Olympians. Sometimes cross-pollinating their training with other international teams that have traveled to train in our warmer climates of Florida.
In countries with strong canoe sport programs and correspondingly impressive medal counts, powerhouse funding assists athletes on their path while simultaneously cultivating burgeoning talent for the next generation. For young American athletes, they often must rely on limited resources in order to pursue their dreams; sharing compromised quarters, subsiding on a ramenesque diet and generally forgoing daily luxuries in favor of mind-numbingly repetitive training. Romantic relationships, family, and employment opportunities often fall to the wayside as a full and total commitment towards their goal are necessary.
Through all the sacrifice, travel, highs, and lows, a strong familial bond has formed. These young athletes depend on each other as they travel towards their dream. The strength of their relationship having endured the daily struggles of their commitment must also be strong enough to withstand the dynamic shift when they change roles between shared boat team members to rivals---on the same day!
So why do they do it? According to Ian Ross, competing for a spot in the Canoe discipline, “Canoe has taught me so many lessons that will carry into other areas of my life, you can’t just jump in one of these boats and start paddling. The first thing you have to learn is balance, and then even making the boat move forward is a challenge. There is so much discipline, commitment, and focus involved; the lessons have been invaluable. But the best part is that at the end of it all we get to be out here on the water, in a beautiful environment with friends. We are lucky to be a part of it.”
The final test for these paddlers comes on April 29th and 30th at the Sprint Nationals hosted by the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club in Gainesville, Georgia. This is the race that will ultimately determine who will represent America in Rio for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.
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