A couple of decades ago, if you were looking for a hotbed of water sports, Oklahoma City likely would not appear on your list. Today, this passionate heartland city is not only the home of the Olympic canoe/kayak team and a stop on the 2016 Road to Rio Olympic tour, but the home of one of the finest whitewater facilities in this hemisphere. How did OKC do it? It all started with OKC’s citizens and a very big love for their hometown.
A MAP to success
In 1993, Oklahoma City (OKC) was struggling. Its citizens, hoping to launch their city into a new era, took an unusual step: they taxed themselves. The new MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) sales tax funded a $350 million initiative that revitalized OKC’s historical downtown, improved the city’s national image and provided new and upgraded cultural, sports, recreation, entertainment and convention facilities.
But OKC’s citizens weren’t finished. That first successful initiative inspired a second MAPS, “MAPS for Kids,” which funded school facility improvements, technology and transportation projects, and, in 2010, MAPS 3, which is funding a number of in-process projects, including a new downtown public park, a modern streetcar public transit line and a new trail system, among other developments.
But the water sports world is buzzing about one particular part of OKC’s MAPS 3 initiative. Led by the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation (OKCBF), a series of developments along the Oklahoma River are turning the already popular riverfront into a world-class riversports destination.
A Riverfront City
The vision for the Oklahoma River began with construction of the Chesapeake Boathouse in 2006 and has since been powered by a group of corporate sponsors led by the OKCBF’s POWER 10 Partners: Devon Energy, OGE, AEP, and The Chickasaw Nation.
Today, the area has become a center of community activity as well as a stage for high-profile watersports competitions, and investments and improvements continue. The waterfront, which has become known as the “Boathouse District” is more than just eminently functional; it’s also a stunning architectural showcase, displaying iconic building designs by Rand Elliott, Elliott & Associates. Current and future building include the following:
Chesapeake Boathouse – Opened in 2006 as OKC’s community boathouse, the Chesapeake Boathouse anchors the district and is headquarters for RIVERSPORT community rowing, kayaking, dragon boating, cycling, running, and fitness center activities.
Devon Boathouse – The Devon Boathouse serves as the Oklahoma City University Boathouse, as well as headquarters for the OKC National High Performance Center. One of the world’s premier training facilities for both rowing and canoe/kayak, the $10 million boathouse includes the world’s first dynamic rowing tank, a state of the art hypoxic (high altitude) training room, an indoor propulsion swim pool, a wide variety of cross training apparatus and extensive strength and conditioning equipment. Offering incredible views of the Oklahoma River, the Devon Boathouse is available for private rental and offers an extraordinary space for events.
Chesapeake Finish Line Tower – Soaring 70-feet above the Oklahoma River with the downtown skyline as its backdrop, the Chesapeake Finish Line Tower is a focal point on the river. This four-story finish tower meets both International Canoe Federation (ICF) and FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Aviron” or, in English, International Federation of Rowing Associations) international racing standards and features meeting and event spaces with 360 degree views of the OKC metro, available for private rental.
CHK|Central Boathouse – The CHK|Central Boathouse serves as home to the University of Central Oklahoma’s women’s rowing team. It also includes a live music venue and an art gallery, establishing it as a unique presence “where art meets the river” in the growing Boathouse District. A beautiful space on the Oklahoma River, the CHK|Central Boathouse provides a memorable setting for private events.
RIVERSPORT Adventures – RIVERSPORT Adventures in the Boathouse District offers on-the-water activities and land adventures for visitors of all ages. Adventures include the 80-foot tall SandRidge Sky Trail, Sky Slide and Rumble Drop, along with kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, climbing walls, an extreme water slide, cycling, and more. The newest adventure at RIVERSPORT Adventures is the SandRidge Sky Zip, which opened in May 2014. Guests start at the top of the SandRIdge Sky Trail and zip 700-feet across the Oklahoma River – and back again. Youth under 48” will enjoy the Youth Zone where they will find fun adventures like the Cloud Bounce, Sky Tykes and the Extreme Jumper.
SandRidge Youth Pavilion – The first phase of construction, the SandRidge Sky Trail, was completed in June 2014. The second phase of construction is currently underway and will provide a large, covered pavilion and an interactive sports experience. The interactive sports area will include a VS-12 high tech indoor simulator for a wide array of sports including golf, basketball, soccer, football and baseball, as well as a SkyTechSport Ski and Snowboard Simulator.
University of Oklahoma Boathouse – Construction drawings are being finalized on this university boathouse which will be home to OU Women’s Rowing.
Into the Future and Beyond
The Chesapeake Boathouse ushered in a new era of OKC’s riverfront romance, a saga that continues as the city’s MAPS 3 investments earn the Oklahoma River a place at the center of the hearts and imaginations of a whole new generation of athletes.
MAPS 3 will fund multiple projects throughout Oklahoma City, but the most anticipated project along the Oklahoma River will be RIVERSPORT Rapids, OKC’s $45.2 million whitewater rafting and kayaking center. Set to open in May 2016, RIVERSPORT Rapids will bring whitewater rafting, kayaking and tubing to visitors. The center will be located at the crossroads of the nation at the intersection of I40 and I50 in the Boathouse District on the Oklahoma River, making it easily accessible to metro OKC residents as well as visitors to our city.
A state-of-the art aquatic adventure facility, RIVERSPORT Rapids will be one of only a few in the world and is being designed by the same team that developed the UK’s Lee Valley White Water Centre for the 2012 London Olympics. The 11-acre RIVERSPORT Rapids whitewater center will be geared for both family fun and elite athlete training. Recirculating channels pumping treated water will create class II-IV rapids and will offer a range of on-the-water experiences.
RIVERSPORT Rapids is not the only MAPS 3 project along the Oklahoma River. MAPS 3 is also funding $60 million in improvements on the Oklahoma River that include grandstands and stadium lighting to allow rowers, kayakers and dragon boaters to participate in night racing.
A River Runs Through It
Oklahoma City’s citizens have always taken an active and enthusiastic role in ensuring a positive future for their city, and they know that it takes more than a river or buildings to create the kind of synergy that can transform a community. People are the center of a community. They are also, not coincidentally, the center of a successful sports event, which is why OKC’s sports-centric, community-building initiatives are just as important to event owners and planners as they are to the people of Oklahoma City.
One such effort, OKC RIVERSPORT, offers rowing, kayaking, cycling, running, fitness and more to hundreds of people from across the metro. The Corporate Rowing League has grown to more than 40 teams, and the Dragon Boat League has had continued success. The organization is also expanding youth outreach programs, which provide life-changing opportunities, and adult and youth rowing and canoe/kayak teams are on the water daily. When racing events are held, the city turns out: take for example Oklahoma City’s premier fall event, the Oklahoma Regatta Festival, which drew more than 25,000+ spectators last October.
Bringing the World to OKC
Thousands of rowers and kayakers have converged on Oklahoma City to race in events ranging from the annual Head of the Oklahoma rowing regatta to the USA Canoe/Kayak Olympic Trials for Flatwater Sprint. International athletes compete at the Oklahoma River on a regular basis, including the 2007 and 2011 USA Rowing World Challenge.
In 2014, athletes from 29 countries gathered in Oklahoma City September 25-28, to compete in the 2014 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships and Pan Am Championships. This was the first world championship event hosted on the Oklahoma River.
The OKC Boathouse Foundation is a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site, and the OKC National High Performance Center is currently training Olympic hopefuls in both rowing and canoe/kayak.
Visit www.visitokc.com for more information about sports events the OKC way.