Three hundred twenty-six million trillion gallons: that's science's best guess as to how much water we have on Earth. And over the last few thousand years, humans have invented almost as many sports to allow them to enjoy all that water. Human creativity just never stops, and that means that everywhere you look, there's always something new going on - and in - the water. Here's a journey into just a few of the ways the world is playing with its water supply right now.
Thanks to 6,000-year-old Stone Age cave paintings in Egypt, we know that humans have been swimming for a very long time. But it was a bit later that swimming became a competitive event, and many historians credit the British with originating the sport. By 1837, England's National Swimming Society was organizing public swimming contests, and the sport made its modern Olympic debut in 1896.
Today, with thousands of competition-quality pools and hundreds of natatoriums across America, competitive swimming is a year-round sport with a massive following. But there's more to swimming than just lap lanes. Some of the sport's audacious athletes prefer the open water, flocking to America's rivers, lakes and oceans to test their endurance, speed and skill.
Distinctly unique from its artificial-pool cousin, open water swimming puts less emphasis on technique, training and gear trends. That's because open water athletes push their athleticism to the edge in highly unpredictable surroundings, unlike pool competitors, who swim in controlled, strategically-engineered swimming environments. In the open water, endurance, tenacity and the ability to roll with the changes in the water and weather play the biggest role in success.
This June, the Open Water Festival in Fort Myers, Florida, hosted more than 300 youth, adult and masters athletes at Lynn Hall Park on Fort Myers Beach, offering competitors more than just a chance at recognition. Top athletes at this competition advanced to the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome. The Open Water Festival, sanctioned by USA Swimming, the sport's National Governing Body (NGB) in America, as well as United States Masters Swimming (USMS) and Swimming Canada, also played host to the USA Swimming 5K and 10K Open Water National Championships and its Open Water Grand Prix, among several other events.
Located in the heart of downtown Ft. Meyers, fronting a strip of restaurants, shops and attractions, Lynn Hall Park offered an ideal location for the event. The Park offers changing rooms, outdoor freshwater showers, over 100 adjacent parking spaces and even picnic and play areas.
Riding the River
Oceanfront cities are certainly not the only places where water sports draw exhilarated competitors and crowds. In July 2009, Fleet Feet Sports resurrected the area's former Sweet Pea Triathlon, rechristening it the Headwaters Half Iron. The 1.2-mile open water swimming portion of the event took place at the Headwaters Public Golf course, famous for its panoramic water, wildlife and mountain views.
Of course, as far as water sports are concerned, Montana is probably best known for its magnificent rivers, including the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison Rivers, which offer some of America's most exciting fishing and whitewater rafting.
If you're looking for excitement on a river,however, you might look to Morgantown, West Virginia, home to America's largest whitewater competition: the Cheat River Race. An approximately 10-mile kayak race, the Cheat River Race, which takes place annually in May, is unique not just because of the infamous rapids it crosses - torrents with nicknames like Big Nasty and High Falls - but also because of its start.
"Unlike nearly all other races, the Cheat River Race has a simultaneous start," explains Cindy Coffindaffer, community relations and marketing director, Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors Bureau. "All 150-plus participants plunge in at once, which creates huge wakes and just a lot of excitement. It's a lot of fun to race and to watch."
A college town with a variety of amenities, restaurants and attractions, including a newly revitalized riverfront, Morgantown anticipates even more excitement on its water in the coming months.
Rowing in the Heart of America
Perhaps the most enthusiastic water sports town in America, at least at the moment, is Oklahoma City. That's because after more than a decade, they have their river back.
Following a number of devastating floods, the North Canadian River, which once flowed through Oklahoma City, was diverted in order to avoid future disaster. This left Oklahoma City with a barren stretch of weedy riverbed until 1993 when taxpayers narrowly approved an initiative to revitalize downtown Oklahoma City and the river along with it.
The Army Corps of Engineers set to work reconstructing the river, a seven-mile stretch of which would later be renamed the Oklahoma River, and completely by accident, they also created a nearly perfect Olympic rowing course. And just like that, Oklahoma City became the hottest rowing town in America.
With the help of private investors and in particular corporate sponsor Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the city got its first state-of-the-art boathouse to host the elite rowing events that began to roll into town.
"Our smaller events are probably 300 athletes, up to events with 1,200 or more athletes so far. We can accommodate even larger events too," explains Elizabeth Laurent, director of marketing and strategic planning, Chesapeake Boathouse. "We have a 4,000 meter head racing course, a 2,000 meter sprint course - the Olympic rowing distance - and we do 500- and 200-meter races as well."
Among Chesapeake Boathouse's prestigious events have been the 2007 USA Rowing World Challenge, the 2008 canoe/kayak Olympic trials and each October, Oklahoma City University's Head of the Oklahoma Regatta, a 1,000-plus athlete event that stretches over an entire weekend and includes America's first sanctioned night racing event.
The city's rowing events are about to become a bit more spread out however. Rowing is growing so fast that Oklahoma City has a new boathouse in the works, the 33,000-square-foot, $10 million Devon Boathouse, which will provide facilities for US Rowing's new High Performance Training Center and a home for Oklahoma City University rowing.
Oklahoma City doesn't have a monopoly on the state's water sports opportunities however. Just head a few miles north on I-35 toward Edmund, Oklahoma and you'll find yourself in another major water sports destination: Arcadia Lake. Located on the Deep Fork River, Arcadia Lake features 1,820 surface acres and 26 miles of shoreline with facilities for swimming, water skiing, boating, and - its most unique feature - a heated, covered dock for year-round bluegill, channel catfish, blue catfish,and largemouth bass fishing.
The World's Fastest (Non-motorized) Water Sport
Take the water sports you know - boating, swimming, fishing, skiing, surfing– and then add a few intrepid people who take everything they do to the next level, and that's how sports like kiteboarding, also known as kitesurfing, are born.
Here's the basic thought process: Sure, surfing is exciting and all, but how can we go faster? According to kitesurfing history, which is actually much longer than you'd think, 13th century Chinese boaters were the first to consider this conundrum. They used kites to add that extra bit of acceleration to their canoes, a sport that came to be called kitesailing, and it was just the beginning.
The next few hundred years saw the development of a variety of different kites and contraptions for surfing-speed-amplification, a technological feat that clearly succeeded, as today's kitesurfers are the world's fastest sailors: in October 2008 French kiteboarder Alexandre Caizergues set the Outright World Sailing Speed Record of 50.57 knots at the Lüderitz Speed Challenge in Lüderitz, Namibia.
Though kitesurfing has a reputation for being on the dangerous side - a fact that is sure to create a draw for some athletes - a number of kitesurfing schools and events across the country are making sure that more people get a taste of the world's fastest water sport. One of the most respected of those schools is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina-based REAL Watersports.
"The period of only extreme-sports enthusiasts taking up kiteboarding is coming to an end," says Carl Giordano, marketing director, REAL Watersports. "It's the fastest growing water sport in the world. We teach over6,000 students a year in Cape Hattaras, which is a mecca for kiteboarding because of our great wind and our huge, shallow bodies of water that are perfect for the sport."
REAL Watersports doesn't just teach kiteboarding. They're also the host to some of the sport's biggest North American events. Their annual Triple S invitational is known as the international free ride "world championships" of kiteboarding. Having just completed its fourth run this June, the Triple S continues to rank as one of pro kiteboarding's most competitive and exciting events.
Continuing its commitment to taking kiteboarding as well as other water sports to the people, REAL Watersports also recently opened a state-of-the-art training facility, its University of Kiteboarding, Surfing and Stand-up Paddle Boarding, that includes 14 condos on the premises as well as shops, dining and pretty much everything sports enthusiasts need to make the ideal water sports vacation.
In Oregon, kiteboarding is more than a sport, but also a way to make a change in the world. It all began after professional kiteboarding instructor Tonia Farman watched her brother Scott battle Leukemia for a year. Meanwhile, a fellow kiteboarder and pediatric surgeon, Garret Zallen joined Farman to put the energy and beauty of kiteboarding to use in the battle they shared.
Together they created Kiteboarding 4 Cancer (KB4C), a non-profit that sponsors kiteboarding fundraising events that donate proceeds to partnering cancer charities. Now in its third year, KB4C brings athletes together to compete in a six-hour endurance kiteboarding race on Oregon's Columbia River. The 2009 KB4C took place August 7-9 at the Hood River Event Site, an advanced sailing site in Hood River, Oregon.
Splashing in San Diego
San Diego has more than its fair share of water, but they also make excellent use of their expanse of H20. Selected as one of the NCAA's championship cities, San Diego is among the cities to get the first shot at hosting championships in a range of college sports, one of which will be water polo, a sport where the city's athletes are true standouts; the city has produced a number of Olympic gold medalists over the years.
Surfing is another sport with a major presence in San Diego, and The San Diego Surfing Academy aims to keep that tradition alive. One of California's leading professional surf schools, in continuous operation since 1995, the Academy offers surf lessons and camps all year long. But one of their most unique offerings is its corporate surf outing, which the Academy has hosted for a variety of companies, including large corporations like General Mills and National Cash Register. These "corporate surf parties" include all instruction, equipment, music, food and probably the most unusual and memorable team-building exercise a company could hope to create.
Riding the Waves: Wisconsin and Beyond
Not all water sports take place outside, and some of them are actually less like sports and more like... well, play. Just ask anyone who's ever been to the Wisconsin Dells, the Waterpark Capital of the World.
Wisconsin might be famous for cheese and very serious winters, but they also claim to be the inventors of the indoor waterpark, a magical place where the weather is always 85 degrees and the water fun never stops.
"The Dells," as they are known to the thousands of Americans who travel there every year to satiate their craving for splashing around, are just one more piece of evidence of one, small universal truth about human life: Where there's water, we'll find a way to play in it. Where will you play next?