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Aug. 6, 2020
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With Olympics postponed, paddlers practicing on Lanier see opportunities

By Jane Harrison
 
The postponement of the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo churned disappointment and stirred new opportunities on Lake Lanier’s Olympic waters. One paddler who is already Olympic-bound and others who hope to race under the torch in Tokyo next year
are training toward their dreams under the blazing summer sun where Olympians raced in 1996.
“I was super excited; then the pandemic hit,” said Nevin Harrison, 18, whose record American performance in a 2019 world championship qualified her for the 2020 Olympics. When the Games were put off until next summer due to the coronavirus, her dream sunk, temporarily. “It hit me hard … I already had my spot,” she said after finishing a tough morning practice last month at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
 
Stanton Collins, 26, pulled his kayak from the water after an intense workout that July morning. If the world had not changed, he could have been in Tokyo at the time or he could have begun a new chapter in his life. Instead, he continues to pursue a goal he set as a teenager in the Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club.
 
Collins sees the rescheduling of the Games as an opportunity to get stronger and faster. When the International Olympic Committee announced the cancellation in late March, Collins was still working toward an Olympic slot. But both remaining qualifying races this year were postponed a year. He said the delay gives him more time to train but also pushes back his career plans. With a Georgia Tech economic degree, the North Hall athlete had hoped to start on his career path after this summer.

Instead, he, Harrison, and about five other U.S. Olympic hopeful paddlers are putting in 30-hour weeks on the water, in the weight room, or on the run. Training for the Olympics is a full-time job, not a paid position in the U.S. as it is in some other countries.
 
“There’s no way to work and go to school” and train for the Olympics, remarked Team USA Coach Zsolt Szadovszki. And, there’s no time to stop for a pandemic. When competitions and boat houses closed down, the U.S. sprint canoe/kayak head coach rented a house on Lake Lanier and quarantined with five Olympic hopeful paddlers. “We were three months in the same house. As a coach you really don’t want to do that,” said Szadovszki, who also serves as LCKC head coach. Collins, who lives in minutes away, met them on the water after they launched from the rental house. The coach loaded up weight equipment for an outdoor gym. “Everyone stayed healthy” and fit, he said.
 
To keep the competitive spirit alive when official starting lines were silent, Szadovszki devised “imaginary fantasy races” when they raced among themselves. “I asked them to stay focused,” he said.
 
Harrison honed her initial focus on the Olympic Games at age 15 after winning multiple medals in women’s canoe at the 2017 ICF Olympic Hopes Regatta in Račice, Czech Republic. She encored that performance in 2018 and piled on more gold in single women’s canoe in 1000-, 500-, and 200-meters in the USA 2019 Team Trials in Oklahoma City. The versatile athlete from Seattle set her aim on the 200-meter distance, an all-out sprint with split seconds separating finishers. She was the first American canoeist to win gold in an International Canoe Federation World Cup.
 
Harrison is poised to make history next summer racing in the Olympic premiere of the women’s single canoe 200, or WC1 200. “It’s the only C1 event for women,” she said. “It’s the shortest and fastest,” she added. Top women finishers cross the line in about 44 seconds. “I’m shooting for 43.”
 
She feels her success is adding to the rising popularity of canoeing for women. The sport requires tremendous agility, core strength and upper body muscle to propel a narrow, tippy vessel through the water while balancing on one knee. And to do it fast takes hours of repetitions on the water and on the pull up bar.
 
Nevin had to acclimate to Georgia summer after coming here from Seattle to train. “I’m not used to the heat,” she said, “but the course is good and the people are welcoming.” She and another athlete are renting a vacation house six minutes from LLOP, so it’s easy to get in a nap between twice-a-day practices. She, like Collins, orients an entire lifestyle toward an athletic goal. The journey requires just as much rest and nutrition as it does physical training.
 
“You only get better when you’re recovering” from the tough workouts, Collins said. He drives 15-minutes home to rest and eat between practices. The kayaker recently set his aim on the 200-meter distance after years of medaling in 500- and 1000-meter single and double men’s kayak races.
 
He pours in about five hours a day training for a race that “on a perfect day” is won in about 34 seconds. Less than a second separates the top 20 men in the K1 200, his coach noted. Midsummer practices reach a feverish intensity. “I feel shaky” after grueling sessions on the water, Collins said.
 
Collins has two chances to qualify for the Olympics next spring. He must either win his event in the Pan Am Games in Brazil or finish fastest of those who are not yet qualified for the Games in the ICF World Cup in Germany.
 
Coach Szadovszki sees an upside for his athletes in the interim between this summer, qualifying races, and the Olympics. “Hands down, five or six still have a chance” for Olympic berths, he said. “Nevin is just getting faster and stronger. Stanton is learning the 200 on the (world class) level. It will give us a much better payload of time to extend that learning curve.”
 
In mid-summer, Olympic hopefuls still were still awaiting details about competitions that will shape their year. They were unsure about traveling outside the country to race or train. In the meantime, Szadovszki plans to keep his athletes paddling on Lanier through August or September, then give them a month off before “rolling back hard” in the late fall and winter. Then he may take them to Florida for winter practice.
 
This time next year, this summer’s work on Lanier might pay off with gold, silver or bronze and the pride of competing in the world’s most celebrated games.

Posted online 7.30.20
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