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Destination Spring Break: Oak Ridge
by Janit Stahl
posted on March 27, 2008


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Dartmouth returns to the docks after a wet session.
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The pilgrimage to Melton Hill Lake in Oak Ridge, Tennessee made sense for crews across the country this year. As the northern-most of the southern-ish training locales, many teams rolled into town a few hours earlier than expected, followed the plentiful signs to the venue, and still had time for the Waffle House after unloading the trailer.

While two southern lakes, Hartwell (Clemson, SC) created by damming the Savannah River and Lanier ( Gainesville, Georgia) created by the dammed Chattahoochee, suffered from a drought this season, Melton Hill Lake faced the drought with high, cool water. Mix that water with an agreeable host club and a welcoming town and you have more than 40 crews in Oak Ridge, TN this spring for double sessions.

It helps that the body of water has approximately 50 miles of rowable, current-controlled water, a 7-lane 2000 meter buoyed course for training scuffles and plentiful docks and boat storage space. It didn't even seem too roiled by the leftovers of a Georgia tornado that came through March 18-19. Crews were able to get out on the water to workout after diligent hosts followed the storm's tail on Nexrad in the coach's office those days - a nice touch from the Oak Ridge Rowing Association's concierge, er, coach, Allen Eubanks.

Clinch River, Manhattan Project, K-25, Y-12, X-10

Oak Ridge's "Secret City/Manhattan Project" past is a creation story worth telling. row2k has taken this on before but, to add a bit as an FYI on the status of several formerly-secret research areas (they even have code names): Y-12 is now operating as a nuclear weapon processing and material storage area, X-10 is now the site of the Oak Ridge National Lab, and K-25 is in the process of being decommissioned and decontaminated - thus the joke about putting hands in the water and digits coming out glowing...never get tired of that one! The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has rated the ecological well-being of the reservoir as "good," and has issued an OK for swimming, finish-line splashing, coxswain dunking and the like.

The Clinch River is dammed in two places, Norris Dam and Melton Hill Dam. This keeps the water cool except where a steam plant output heats things up miles away. Boaters, swimmers, anglers and water skiers stay toasty there, and don't wake the crews 20 some miles away, a good situation for everyone.

ORRA

To discuss the rowing venue, however; it is impossible to overlook host club the Oak Ridge Rowing Association. It is through the club that the venue executed the ascension to a bellwether role in spring training, regatta hosting and developing youth athletes. ORRA is a 250-member private rowing club that won the 2005 US Rowing Club of the Year, and has 2007 Clayton W. Chapman award winner, Allen Eubanks, as coach and administrator. Recently added to the staff is one of the sport's ubiquitous jack-of-all-trades Mark Wilson, who hit the ground running the first week of spring break training.

Eubanks started as a coach of the club in 2001. That year they had 13 crews quietly enjoying Melton Hill Lake for spring training. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, the numbers climbed to 40+, and at one time (the weekend of March 14 and 15), 25 crews were gathering by the docks, including the Canadian National Team (women). This doesn't surprise Eubanks who has, in an affable, unruffled manner (despite liberal amounts of Starbucks delivered by an ORRA volunteer), organized the entire thing. He identified a few bonuses of spring rowing in Oak Ridge:

  • Fresh, not salt, water.
  • Several hours less travel (for many crews it is a day trip).
  • Focus on training, not on fun. (Not to be a spoil sport here, but Oak Ridge is devoid of the Tampa and Miami-esque allure of debauchery, imbibing and general opportunities for bad behavior.)
  • For the athletes, ability to walk to shopping and restaurants near hotel.
  • Docks, safe launching area inlet and water protected by enough hills to keep it flat most of the time. Dams regulate current, but that point is more important for regattas on the schedule.
  • Knowledgeable staff and volunteers to greet teams.
The club has volunteers with serious hustle. Several members were seen installing buoys along the 2000 meter course, which is straight and bisects the 50 miles of water, making multi-team scrimmages and seat-racing easier during training sessions. It also, not coincidentally, prepared the venue for the John Hunter Regatta and several on tap in the coming weeks.

Although things are moving forward in the club as Eubanks had hoped, the infusion of Wilson's energy and vision is part of the overall plan for the club. (More on this later.)

...and the guests

"We came here for what everyone comes here for - the rowing," says Pete Cathey, Director of Rowing and Head Men's Coach at the University of New Hampshire. "The town--and Allen--really makes it easy to focus on training."

Cathey was in Oak Ridge with at least 2 eights; UNH Women's coach Rachel Rawlinson had two boats training as well.

"Last year they had a blast," said Rawlinson of her crew. This year they experienced a bit of rain, but everyone in the blue and white took it in stride, or stroke. [As a side note, Rawlinson's crew is one of the few women's programs that went from varsity to club two years ago. In a period where Women's Varsity/D1 programs are growing, especially in the south, UNH delivered some unfortunate news to the program. "They (UNH athletic administration) came to us with a matrix on paper with reasons for the decision outlined..." said Rawlinson. The bottom line was dollars and Title IX compliance, a strange reversal of fortune for the women. Rachel is now a coach in the recreation department. Hard to believe. row2k watched her crew, including some very sharp and smallish oarswomen, put a hurting on some strong boats in informal racing over the week.]

Mendota Rowing Club was in Oak Ridge from the frosty Midwestern reaches of Madison, WI and Lake Mendota. The Junior program rows on the same currently-solid water as Wisco. Mendota has benefited from Wisco's generosity, and his been using Porter Boathouse's tanks weekly to improve technique, but nothing is better than water time. "They have learned so much in a short period here," said Assistant Coach Russell Bidell. (Note: apologies to Head Coach Hal Menendez of Mendota, as the row2k reporter borrowed his assistant coach and launch for a few minutes to catch a women's rumpus on the 2k course.)

Teams of all levels waited in the queue to launch the week of March 9-15. In residence was the Canadian Women's National team, who gave coaches an opportunity to say:

"See that boat? Row like them!"

Not exactly true, but Al Morrow, Development Coach for Rowing Canada, said he did notice a few coaches using his team as an example for all the right reasons: blade work, swing, etc., and the Canadian women obliged.

"As a national team, we do a lot of practice in quiet settings away from crowds," says Morrow. "It was good for us to wait to launch, interact with other rowers - it is a good simulation of racing," he adds. On longer workouts, however, Morrow took the women away from the other teams 4-6k above the start and "got some good focused rowing up there - we were alone."

"Virtually every day the water was excellent; even when it was windy the water was good," said Morrow. He also noted that the relaxed atmosphere of ORRA, minus the rules and regulations of some locales, made it a positive experience for Canadian Rowing. "We plan to come back here," he concludes.

The team will be training in St. Catherine's over the next few weeks instead of their home training venue in London, ONT. They will spend May 24-June 24 in Europe at World Cups with a qualifier in Poland between. "Everything is different in an Olympic year," says Morrow.

Morrow said "thanks" to ORRA in a very appropriate manner before his departure. He was guest coach of the club's youth boat, mentoring the coach as well as educating the athletes.

Back to the Future

The current leadership team at Oak Ridge Rowing Club is not settling in their modest boathouse at the marina on Melton Lake Road (with their scone-eating Labrador Retriever "K.C.") waiting for the next team to roll in. While row2k was visiting, Wilson was out in launches with coaches; making calls to National Governing bodies in other endurance and water sports, and visiting the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Why? This is all part of the plan.

"We want make this a world-class training facility," says Allen Eubanks. While he and Mark Wilson are figuring out their roles/work assignments at ORRA, they both are full-steam-ahead with making their mutual dream a reality. Eubanks has years of experience at creating something out of nothing. As a young coach at Centenary College in Louisiana, he had a small fleet of aging Schoenbrods and a team of leftovers from other sports. From that humble beginning, he won his US Rowing award, was named Chair of the US Rowing Youth Committee, and is the Director of the Southeast Regional Junior Development Camp. He has had crews in Youth Nationals for the past 5 years.

ORRA would like to parlay its recent success in hosting spring training and regattas into creating a comprehensive, multi-sport training facility. Although this is a long-term plan, they have made several steps in the right direction - at least in advancing the rowing part. The addition of the UT-Batelle finish tower in 2001 made it NCAA-ready. The thousands of dollars of dredging, mostly to lanes 1 and 2, made the currents (when present) more consistent across all lanes. The club hosted NCAAs successfully in June of 2007, Masters Nationals in August of 2007, as well as SIRAs and several smaller regattas. Getting to Oak Ridge proved to be logistically challenging for a regatta like the NCAA, where participating crews are spread out geographically, but once you get there, they are effective at regatta hosting, no debating this.

One of the items on the "to-do" list is to add a lane to make it a FISA course. Since the obvious side of the course to dig includes an Indian site (unsure if this is burial or artifacts) the state will not let them dig, dredge or disturb that jutting piece of land near the 500m sign. Plan B is to add a lane on the road side, bringing crews oh-so-close to the spectators.

The most interesting direction of ORRA's path is coaching education. Mark Wilson, who is also a Director with the Foundation for Rowing Education, is hoping to create opportunities for coaching education during spring training. He sees that the requisite athlete downtime allows coaches to have lunch together, hold workshops, and network; thus maximizing their experience in Oak Ridge. This program could be implemented in coming years, look for developments on this on www.orra.org.

For the long term, however, both Eubanks and Wilson see Melton Hill Lake and the adjacent boathouse as much more than just a rowing venue. They see the potential to connect with the flat water kayaking and cycling community, possibly others.

There is more, certainly, as they are arguably one of the most desirable rowing training destinations already. The ORRA community, with Eubanks' southern connection and Wilson's alliances through his years at the helm of Indiana and All-American Rowing has a broad reach that is growing by the minute.

In the mean time, they have a few eye sore houseboats for sale on Craigslist. Make sure you call Mark about them, and ask all about their history.

See some photos by who Pete Cathey called the "rowing paparazzi," here at row2k galleries.

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