You can build great sports facilities almost anywhere, but few areas have the unique natural venues that you’ll find in the four-county region of South Carolina surrounding Lake Murray and the city of Columbia.
“Our geographic location is one of our best selling points,” says Scott Powers, the executive director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council. “In the last few years, we’ve concentrated on the unique natural venues we have, our rivers and lakes and surrounding areas, which a lot of places don’t have.”
Three rivers converge in downtown Columbia and, when combined with nearby Lake Murray, they create a watersports playground few areas can compete with. Add to that unique and beautiful locations perfect for events such as triathlons, trail runs, marathons, mountain biking and more, and you have nature at its best—creating venues that allow athletes to perform at their best.
But while Powers highlights the natural venues, he also is quick to admit those aren’t the only selling points. The region has major sports facilities that are home to local, regional and national events. “Plus,” he adds, “we’re a 365-day destination, hosting events throughout the year.”
But let’s start at the water. Extending north from Columbia is the Broad River, with calm, flat water ideal for rowing. With a dock built specifically for rowing competitions, the Broad River hosts a regatta every year and brings in top collegiate teams for winter and spring training.
The Saluda River flows out of Lake Murray, which is to the west of Columbia. Because the river is dam-controlled, the flow can be adjusted. “We can make it a white-water river with Class 2 to Class 4 rapids,” says Powers. The Saluda has hosted many kayaking and canoeing events, including world championships.
South from Columbia is the Congaree River, with a leisurely flow perfect for recreation.
"By virtue of all this water, we cater to all types of water sports enthusiasts,” says Miriam Atria, president/CEO of the Capital City/Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board. And one of the the biggest draws in the area is the 50,000-acre Lake Murray, which is 41 miles long and 14 miles wide at its widest point, with 560 miles of shoreline.
“It’s a very large lake, with 18 marinas and landings,” says Atria. Lake Murray sits between four counties: Saluda, Newberry, Richland and Lexington.
“We have three sailing clubs that hold regattas,” she adds. “When the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, the Russian sailing team used Lake Murray to train.” The lake hosts sailboat and motorboat racing, waterski events, swimming competitions and more.
On the Line
And, of course, fishing is huge. Lake Murray is known for its bass, but also has catfish, crappie, bream and more, and can easily handle tournaments with hundreds of participants.
This past April, the area hosted the three-day National Guard FLW College Fishing National Championships, which was televised on NBC. The lake has hosted the National Championship of the American Bass Anglers American Fishing Tour, which featured the top 500 anglers from across the country, and has also hosted the prestigious Forrest Wood Cup, which offers a $1 million prize to the winner.
The largest island on Lake Murray is Dreher Island State Park, with 348 acres, and it’s perfect for triathlons and other events. “Triathlons on Dreher Island take advantage of the lake for swimming, as well as the state park itself for biking and running,” says Atria. “But the great thing is, it’s a safe environment, since participants don’t have to contend with traffic. Also, event organizers don’t have the expense associated with closing roads.” Dreher Island also has a large staging area for vendors, tents, outdoor shows and more.
Harbison State Forest, about 8 miles from downtown Columbia, is nearly 2,200 acres of woodland and meadowland, with 16 miles of trails perfect for biking, trail runs and races. The area hosts an Exterra off-road half marathon, in addition to other events.
The region is a tennis powerhouse. As if the top-notch 21-court Lexington County Tennis Complex wasn’t enough, last fall the county opened the Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center, which adds another 30 courts.
Both facilities are under the watchful eye of former Venezuelan Davis Cup player and captain Jorge Andrew, a longtime and well-respected master teaching professional. The two tennis centers can handle any size tournament, and in fact are used for many national and regional events for players of all ages.
Other venues include the Columbia Tennis Center, with 14 lighted hard courts; South East Park and Tennis Center, which as 12 hard and four soft courts, with lights; and Richland County Tennis Center, which has 12 lighted hard courts.
The four-country region also is home to 22 golf courses, and many are set up to handle tournaments and events.
On the Fields…
“Soccer events have continued to grow for us,” Powers says. In fact, “We have plans to open an 18-field soccer complex in 2014.”
For now, though, some of the premier soccer (and field sports) venues include the Lexington Soccer Complex with 13 fields (with lights). Kittiwake Soccer Fields and Old Barnwell Road Soccer Complex also offer multiple fields, and there are other fields and stadiums available at high schools and colleges in the area.
There also are baseball and softball venues and stadiums that bring in large and small events, including the lighted Lexington Sports Complex, which has nine youth baseball/softball fields, an intermediate field and a regulation field, along with two T-ball fields. Other facilities with multiple fields are scattered throughout the region.
Indoors, the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena is home to the University of South Carolina men’s and women’s basketball teams. But it also plays host to the girls’ and boys’ state high school basketball championships, among other events.
Adjacent to the Colonial Life Arena is the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, which every year hosts several cheerleading and dance competitions. There also are other venues in the area that hold cheer, dance and gymnastics events.
In addition, there are two indoor sports facilities. Plex Indoor Sports–Sandhills includes 86,000 square feet in a climate-controlled environment with standard arena-type artificial grass fields. The facility also has indoor basketball and a 7,500-square-foot indoor, professionally designed skateboard park.
Plex Indoor Sports & Ice–Irmo includes 75,000 square feet with an NHL regulation-sized ice rink. It also includes state-of-the-art artificial grass fields and a 7,500-square foot indoor skateboard park. Both Plex facilities include lounges, cafes and pro shops.
Finding What You Need
The staff at the Columbia Regional Sports Council and Capital City/Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board works with event and sports organizers to secure area facilities that match specific needs.
The two organizations also can assist in finding the best rates at the more than 12,000 hotel rooms in the four-county region and in arranging transportation. In addition, they can help with promotion and publicity of events, and more. (For more information, visit www.columbiasportscouncil.com and www.LakeMurrayCountry.com.)
Whether you need a natural or manmade venue for your sporting event, most likely you’ll find it in the four-county area surrounding Columbia and Lake Murray in the heart of South Carolina.
Getting to the Capital City/Lake Murray region is easy by car or bus. In fact, Columbia is one of only 10 cities in the U.S. that has three major Interstate highways converging on the metropolitan area—I-20, I-26 and I-77. It’s also within 90 miles of I-85 and I-95.
By air, there are a number of direct flights into Columbia Metropolitan Airport from Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. The airport, only 6 miles southwest of Columbia’s central business district, is served by American Eagle, Delta, United and US Airways. Amtrak also provides passenger train service to Columbia.