2016 and Beyond: U.S. Sprint Canoe Athletes Retrace Their Roots

Oct. 31, 2012, 8:12 p.m. (ET)


Credit: Getty Images. From L-R Alejandro Schwedhelm, Ben Hefner, Ian Ross, Robert Finlayson.

The U.S. has not sent a sprint canoeist to the Olympics for two Games, since Jordan Malloch and Nate Johnson competed in the C2 1000m at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. A trio of young “high-kneelers” hope to change that in 2016.

One of those Olympic hopefuls, Ian Ross, grew up paddling with the grandson of Frank Havens, the last U.S canoe athlete to win an Olympic medal at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland.

Ross, 19, started out in the same club as Havens - the Washington Canoe Club in Washington, D.C. Ross’ father paddled with Havens’ son. Ross’ grandfather paddled for a canoe club in Yonkers, N.Y. that produced 1948 Olympic Gold medalists Steve Lysak and Steve Macknowski.

Members of the Ross family continue to make their way south along the East Coast. Last year, Ian Ross made the full-time move from D.C. to Gainesville, Georgia in search of competition. He found it in the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, led by head coach and World Champion canoeist Cladiu Ciur.

Ciur won a gold medal for Romania in canoe at the 2002 Sprint World Championships. He placed fourth at the 2003 World Championships, which was held on Lake Lanier - the same site as the rowing and flatwater canoe/kayak races for the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.

Since 2008, Ciur has been convincing promising young paddlers to try canoeing. Joining Ross are Georgia-natives Robert Finlayson and Ben Hefner. Together, some combination of the three athletes won seven of the eight Senior races at the 2012 Sprint National Championships.

“I would almost say it’s the place to be if you were just a paddler, but it’s definitely the place to be if you’re a high-kneeler, or a canoer,” Ross said. “We’ve got me, Robert, we’ve got Ben too. We’re starting to get a group of high-level athletes that are pushing each other and working hard.”

Ross excels in the longer distances, which were popular back when the U.S. was winning Olympic medals in them. Finlayson, 24, and Hefner, 20, battle it out for the shorter distances. Gone from the Olympic program is the 10,000-meter distance that Frank Havens won in 1952. What’s left is the 1,000m and the 200m races. The 200m race made its Olympic debut in London this past summer, replacing the 500m race. Women’s canoeing is not yet an Olympic discipline.

The trio of Ross, Hefner and Finlayson recorded Top 20 finishes at the 2011 World Championships. But that’s not good enough for Finlayson, whose goal it is “to become actually competitive in the A Final, to get medals in the next four years.”

Ciur knows what it takes to win at the international level. He tries to instill the necessary work ethic into his athletes. Many of them want to be Olympians, but only a few have both the talent and the determination.

“It’s all about the hard work,” Ciur said. “It’s all about what you want to do. If you really want it, if you are positive, you are going to do it someday. Sometimes it takes years to reach the podium internationally.”

It took Ciur eight years of training 14 times a week before he won his World Championship medal. He hopes to identify a select group of athletes at his club with the commitment to work as hard as the paddlers being churned out by European countries like Germany and Russia.

“You want to come here to have fun? No problem, we have a place for you,” Ciur said. “You want come here to be an Olympian? We have a place for you. We have a program where you can push to be an Olympian. But first we need to know what you want.”

USA Canoe/Kayak hopes to tap into this potential with canoe-only camps, communications and specialized coaching programs as part of its National Sprint Development Program. Matthew Lam (Renton, Wash.) of the Cascade Canoe and Kayak Club recently placed 5th among 15-year-olds in C1 200m at the 2012 Olympic Hopes Regatta in Szeged, Hungary.

“In Claudiu, you have a coach who understands the commitment and focus it takes to win world medals in canoe,” said USA Canoe/Kayak CEO Joe Jacobi. “He is so passionate about sharing his excitement for the sport with younger athletes. Participation in canoe categories at Sprint Nationals increased significantly in 2012. We still have a lot of work to do but all of these pieces contribute to a more focused effort on the Canoe program.”

USA Canoe/Kayak is a non-profit membership organization based in Oklahoma City, OK, promoting canoe and kayak racing in the United States. A member of the United States Olympic Committee, USA Canoe/Kayak is the national governing body for the Olympic sports of Flatwater Sprint and Whitewater Slalom and the official U.S. federation of the International Canoe Federation. Other paddling sports sanctioned by USACanoe/Kayak include Marathon, Freestyle, Wildwater, Stand Up Paddleboard, Canoe Polo, Canoe Sailing, Outrigger, and Dragon Boat. For more information about USA Canoe/Kayak, please visit us on the web at www.usack.org, on Twitter at @usacanoekayak and Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/USACanoeKayak.