Nearly 80,000 square miles of the United States is covered with water. With more than 250,000 rivers, nearly 40 million acres of lakes, reservoirs and countless smaller bodies of water, not to mention coastal areas, it’s no surprise that Americans find new ways to enjoy their water all the time. From classic sports like canoeing to new adrenaline-spiking events like the almost-Olympic wakeboarding, water sports hold a special place in America’s hearts and communities. And that’s just the beginning: a whole new generation of water warriors is making a splash.
Where there’s water, people find a way to play. In North Platte, Nebraska, picturesque Lake Maranatha offers a stunning backdrop for events and camps as well as the venue for a unique triathlon, featuring a half-mile open water swim. In Oak Ridge, Tenn., Melton Hill Lake offers 173 miles of shoreline for boating, fishing, swimming and water skiing and is the home of the nationally recognized Oak Ridge rowing course.
New ways to move across, through, over and under water emerge all the time, so the authoritative list of water sports is long and ever-changing. But a few of the time-honored events, as well as a handful of new sports on the block, are making a significant mark on the water sports world.
One of the original sports in the modern Olympic Games, rowing has a long and celebrated lineage. Rowing is often associated with rivers that wind through elite collegiate campuses, but while the sport does have strong Ivy League roots, it’s also expanding among age brackets and geographical locales all the time.
“We’ve been known as a niche sport, and the very first intercollegiate competition was the Yale-Harvard race [in 1852]. But we’ve seen huge growth across the country,” says Glenn Merry, CEO, USRowing, the national governing body (NGB) for rowing in the United States. “People are taking a new approach to rowing, planning events that get the community involved, offering corporate rowing programs, including entertainment to bring people to the river. It’s really allowed us to popularize the sport in a special way.”
Rowing’s popularity has increased geographically, spreading from its traditional Northeast center down the West Coast, throughout the Southeast and into the Midwest. A new youth rowing movement is also stirring, thanks in part to programs like US Rowing’s America Rows, a nationwide diversity and inclusion initiative, that aims to introduce rowing to a diverse group of Americans by providing support, both organizationally and financially, to existing and planned programs across the country.
One of rowing’s developing hot spots is in Topeka, Kansas. Lake Shawnee, built as a Work Progress Administration project, was completed in 1939, when over 5,000 fishermen celebrated the opening day. Today, Lake Shawnee is home to a variety of athletic events, including the Great Plains Rowing Championships. Each May, more than 300 athletes came together for the annual Great Plains Rowing Championships, a two-day event comprising over 100 races.
“Lake Shawnee is home to a number of events—sailing, rowing, skiing, and so on— which are all very well attended and participated in,” says Jennifer Muse, sports marketing manager, Visit Topeka. “People don’t associate those things with landlocked places, but we really do have a lot of water sports here. They’re very popular.”
The layout of Lake Shawnee lends itself particularly well to sports events. Its oblong shape makes it ideal for both the actual events and for spectators.
Another water sport NGB, USA Canoe/Kayak, is also making strong gains in popularizing its sport with a community outreach program, centered at its home in Oklahoma City.
“We recently had a big festival weekend,” says Joe Jacobi, CEO, USA Canoe/Kayak. “It was a primary Paddle Now! event, the Riversport Challenge. People [new to paddling] come and paddle a super stable recreational kayak five hundred meters, which amounts to two and a half to four minutes of kayaking, then run a 5K on the river trail. For the second year in a row, we’ve had over 100 competitors. That’s a big thing for kayaking, and we’re getting a lot of interest from the running community.”
Paddle Now! is USA Canoe/Kayak's national campaign to build its membership base by introducing the sport to new paddlers. Combining a variety of innovative ideas, programs and events, Paddle Now! has a single objective: get more people on the water with a paddle in their hands. It’s an initiative that’s showing both promise and results. Expanding its base is just one of USA Canoe/Kayak’s recently restructured objectives, all of which are part of the organization’s new direction.
“A few years ago, we were treading water. We didn’t know where the future of the sport was heading, but our move to Oklahoma City changed that,” says Jacobi. “We’ve got a great team. We’re a lot more financially disciplined; we’re increasing our membership and we’ve also gotten some wins programmatically, all of which have increased our stakeholders’ confidence.”
USA Canoe/Kayak relocated its headquarters to Oklahoma City in early 2012 to partner with the city’s visionary Boathouse District, which, when complete, will be a $100 million complex and already is building a strong and enthusiastic paddling community. With the addition of USA Canoe/Kayak, the Boathouse District today offers an elite training opportunity for future Olympians, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for beginning paddlers to hit the water alongside some of the sport’s best athletes.
“We’ve got so many exciting things coming up,” says Sue Hollenbeck, assistant director of sports development, Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In September 2014, the International Canoe Federation is hosting their Marathon World Championships here. It will be the first time ever in United States. They chose to move it because of the exceptional venue we have here and because USA Canoe/Kayak is based here. It’s a very big deal to us.”
USRowing is also taking note of the river sports renaissance in other cities.
“There are some cool developing sites right now,” says Merry. “Over the past 10 years, Oklahoma City has gone from no rowing and no water to huge investment in water sports. Sarasota, Florida, is another, partnering with a local construction company to turn a preexisting lake, which wasn’t long enough for international rowing, into an exceptional course that’s working with Visa to host an international rowing championship.”
USA Water Ski
Man-powered watercraft represent just one of the ways people have turned their rivers, lakes and oceans into a playing field. A whole range of other athletes get their on-water momentum by being towed behind boats or pulled along on cables, giving rise to an ever-evolving array of sports represented by USA Water Ski.
“We represent nine separate sport disciplines, including our largest, the American Water Ski Association, which includes traditional waterskiing, slalom, jumping and trick skiing,” says Bob Crowley, executive director, USA Water Ski.
Waterskiing, a recreational sport invented in the early 1920s in Minnesota, maintains a steady and loyal base of participants, says Crowley, but some of the organization’s other disciplines are experiencing strong growth.
“Show skiing is very strong in the upper Midwest but is definitely growing all over America and throughout the world,” says Crowley. Show skiing is a kind of choreographed water skiing performance that includes all aspects of the sport – including barefooting, jumping, slalom, tricks and kneeboarding. The sport is gathering a growing following, both in athletes and in spectators.
“There are clubs that put together one hour shows, exhibitions and tournaments,” says Crowley. “In Janesville, Wisconsin, the Rock Aqua Jays Water Ski Show Team are the 2012 U.S. and World Champions. Their team members have been leaders in promoting the sport of show ski worldwide and organized the first ever world championships last year, attracting teams from China, Belgium, Canada, etc. Last year, they hosted the first-ever World Show Ski Championships.”
USA Water Ski’s third largest sport is also one of its highest-profile disciplines: wakeboarding. Like snowboarding on water, wakeboarding involves riding and performing tricks on a board while being pulled behind a boat or tugged along on a cable. The sport was shortlisted for the 2020 Olympics, but lost out in the final round of voting. Despite this, the sport continues to gain athletes and new venues all around the country.
The 15th USA Wakeboard Nationals will take place in September in Rock Hill, South Carolina. USA Water Ski is partnering with the Rock Hill/York County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a strategy that they say is crucial to helping the sport grow.
“The CVB in Rock Hill has given huge support to the event and will be putting up the $15,000 cash purse,” says Britt Hoyland, competition and events coordinator, USA Water Ski. “We’ve found that with wakeboarding, working with CVB is a huge advantage. Everything from the financial backing they put into it and the event support to coordination can make the whole process much smoother.”
“Show ski is pretty concentrated in large clubs, working with their home sites,” says Crowley. “They’re not moving around quite as much. With wakeboarding, as a more emerging sport, we’re seeing positive things happen when we work with the sports commissions and CVBs where we host events.”
As wakeboarding has grown in popularity, the venues created to host this sport have multiplied as well. One such facility is Butler County, Ohio’s, Wake Nation, the region’s only cable wakeboarding park.
“Nautique World Wakeboard Association Wakeboard National Championship came here last year, and it was their first time in Ohio,” says Stephanie Gigliotti, senior sales manager, sports and events, Butler County Visitors Bureau. “The event brought in about 7,000-8,000 people and was a stop on the pro wakeboarding tour.”
Not surprisingly, Ohio also happens to be home to a strong water skiing population. This summer, Butler County hosted the Junior U.S. Open, which brought 44 athletes, including some local water ski stars, for a weekend of competition.
Of all USA Water Ski’s nine disciplines, however, according to Crowley, the greatest amount of growth within its disciplines is in a sport called wake surf.
“Wake surfing is done with a board similar to a surf board, about five feet on average, that’s pulled behind the boat,” says Hoyland. “Your feet are not attached, and unlike wakeboarding, you let go of the rope that’s pulling you, and then you surf the wake created by the boat.”
Each of USA Water Ski’s sports requires specific equipment and technology, which is how they keep tabs on the growth of each discipline. “When we see boat manufacturers building boats made specifically for that sport, it tells us that the sport is growing,” says Crowley. “That’s exactly what’s happening in wake surfing.”
Natural and artificial bodies of water all over the country offer ample places for aquatic competitions, but in some cases, a controlled environment is the most important criteria. That’s where natatoriums come in, and Greensboro, North Carolina’s, is an excellent example.
“Greensboro is a sports-driven destination,” stated Brian Ambuehl, sports sales manager with the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “With the addition of the state- of-the-art Greensboro Aquatics Center (GAC) facility, we have been able to secure numerous water sporting events, which include national, regional and local swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, and water polo championships.”
The Scenic Park Aqua Plex in South Sioux City, Nebraska, offers another excellent indoor aquatics competition facility, with a 50-meter Olympic pool and two diving boards.
Whether they are indoor, outdoor, controlled or free and wild, water sports are an American favorite and a boon to communities with the venues to share. Innovation and energy infuse all of these events, bringing communities and athletes together and always to the water’s edge.