By Jane Harrison
Cancellation of regattas, Olympic trails, and other spring events at Lake Lanier Olympic Park due to concerns about coronavirus strike far-reaching blows, causing pain and adjustments not just for athletes and spectators, but also to the organizations that support them and the hospitality industry that depends on their visits.
Jeff Kish, director of the John Hunter Regatta, was the first to call off a major LLOP event after hearing concerns of parents, volunteers and referees. Originally set for March 21-22, the 34th annual regatta put on by Roswell’s St. Andrews Rowing Club was expected to bring more than 1,500 college and high school rowers, plus hundreds of volunteers, spectators and officials.
Kish made the difficult call on March 6 or 7 after a full day of talking on the phone with those involved. “There was too much concern,” he said, not just about the virus, but also about the high water level on Lake Lanier that threatened anchoring the race course. As disappointing as it was, Kish said “I’m thankful I did it when I did, it’s probably a blessing I canceled soon enough so we didn’t incur a lot of expense.”
The club may have averted financial loss, but a wave of woe hit an entire chain of businesses impacted by no regatta, from hotels and restaurants to t-shirt vendors and trophy shops to the Olympic venue itself. “The cancellation of the John Hunter Regatta and the US and Canada Olympic Trials is a blow to not only the revenue of LLOP but also to LCKC (Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club), LLRC (Lake Lanier Rowing Club), St. Andrews Rowing Club and our local hotels and restaurants,” said Robyn Lynch, Gainesville Convention and Visitors Bureau Director, who also oversees LLOP.
“The spring events at LLOP contribute to over 2,000 overnight stays in our local hotels/motels,” she said. Rent paid by organizations that use the venue help cover operational expenses at the former Olympic site. “We are fortunate that several of the spring events were just postponed and not canceled,” Lynch said.
For instance, the CVB hopes to hold its Spring Chicken Festival this summer, likely in June. This month’s Food Truck Friday is off, but might roll back in May. However, other events with national or international connections are gone for 2020 or postponed indefinitely.
By mid-March, cancellations at LLOP came one after another. Canoe Kayak Canada announced it “made the difficult but necessary decision” to cancel its sprint Olympic and Paralympic Trials April 16-19. Its website gave athletes a link for a “Mental Health Resource Document.”
The American Canoe Association followed in their wake, calling off their sprint canoe/kayak Olympic Trials originally set for the same dates.
Before that, the American Collegiate Rowing Association announced it would decide by April 13 about whether to go ahead with its national championship set for May 22-24. Thousands of competitors usually fill the Olympic channel and grandstands in pursuit of collegiate club rowing’s top crowns. But, with some colleges across the nation essentially grounding their boats for the season, rowers might not be able to practice. ACRA officials remained positive, as a significant number of college crews hoped to pick up oars again in April. In mid-March, ACRA officials stated that “in the spirit of optimism” they still planned a championship regatta for programs able to attend.
However, two long time volunteers with the local rowing club had their doubts. On a gray mid-March afternoon, Dave Markey and Gary Wiegand parked the club’s launch boats – each with faded logos from the 1996 Olympics – on the concrete at the end of the Olympic plaza. “After NCAA canceled, most schools extended their spring break. (Athletes) are working from home,” Markey said.
That meant hundreds of rowers that traditionally flood LLOP and local hotels and restaurants during pre-season training weren’t coming. The week before, about 400 rowers from eight schools hit the water behind the boathouse. By March 16, Markey and Wigand were pulling the club’s motor boat fleet off the water, no longer needed by coaches monitoring young crews on Lanier.
Many rowers and paddlers aiming to set personal records or achieve lofty goals worked to keep in shape in hopes they’ll get their time in the sunshine. For others, cancellations mark the end of years of sweat and hard work without closure. As of late March, the summer Olympics in Tokyo were still on, although some sports’ qualifying events were changing. LCKC and ACA head coach Zsolt Szadovszki, who trains Olympic hopefuls, saw a potential benefit of trying times. “It is frustrating, but right now it really comes down to basically an extra focus on training that could possibly be even more beneficial in their preparation,” he said. “We are staying positive in the spirit of the Olympic Games are still on and as of now all the officials saying that is the case.”
Szadovszki said “quite a few LCKC athletes” have a strong plan to make the Games. He mentioned Stanton Collins, Alex Lee, Nate Humberston, Aaron Mullican, Owen Farley Klacik, Edward Surles, and Shaye Hatchette were aiming for Olympic slots in other national and international qualifiers “as soon as the situation gets safe.”
“The way I feel about the current situation is that we have to take it extremely seriously and not to create panic. We all need to watch ourselves and think about our actions. We healthy people will survive this but with unnecessary actions can cause bigger damage in our community and even in our own families,” Szadovszki said. “I actually rented a house on the lake so I can keep these athletes all together all the time in one place.”
Kish, organizer of “The Hunter” regatta, vowed that thousands of kids will row again to chants of cheering fans at LLOP in his club’s signature race, but the shut down of this year’s events will be a silent finale for others. After years of commitment, practice six days a week, sometimes twice daily, some young rowers may rack the oars. Shoulders might soften. The rhythm of rowing in unison with boat mates may get lost.
Posted online 3.26.20