The course on Melton Hill Lake looks great; 100 meters of red buoys, 400 of green, 500 of yellow, 500 of green, and then white turning red on the next two 250 marks. There may be a little current in the mix, it's hard to tell; the official word is that if the dams are not open, the lanes are fair. That said, no expense has been spared to prepare the course to be a very modern rowing venue; in 1997, the then-US sculling coach complained about water depth in lane one and two; the local folks got permits to dredge them in response at a cost of $150,000. The launching area is also a true gem, a small bay off the main course that looks a lot like the setup at the Athens Olympic racecourse in Schinias. In total, about $1 million of public and private money has gone into the course, and it shows.
Weather for the championship looks warm, dry, and calm; water conditions for the past couple days have been perfect save for a 20-minute squall that came in just as the course was closing Wednesday night. Even then the wind and rain failed to render the course anything resembling unrowable.
A road runs along the course off the starboard side as you go down the course, as does a foot/bike path; for folks who have raced at the IRA or other events on the Cooper River, the overall setup is remarkably similar - check it out on the rudimentary graphic accompanying this feature. The start backs up almost to the land tucked into a small cove off the starboard side as the river tapers away to port, and subsequently the course crosses the river a bit to finish more to the port side of the waterway. The main difference is the launching bay at 500 to go on what would be the Lane 6 side on the Cooper, and of course miles and miles of warmup area in almost the same orientation as Cooper's tighter warmup area. The lanes are marked opposite of the typical "Lane 1 to 6 going away from the finish line tower;" Lane 1 is the far lane on the northeastern shore, lane 6 on the southwestern shore.
Even semi-locals know about the venue; when you ask at the rental car counter at the Knoxville airport how to get to the rowing venue, the agent will tell you how to get to Oak Ridge generally, and finishes up by saying "at that point you'll start seeing the signs to the rowing venue; they're all over the place." When you drive in, you find the directions to be on the mark; the community has clearly embraced the venue and the sport.
Folks ask about radioactivity in these parts; one athlete even dipped her hand in the water "to see if it was warm from all the nuclear accidents."
Actually, it turns out that one of the reasons that the course site works well for rowing is that the water is much colder than a few miles downriver, where the output from a steam plant increases water temps significantly. As a result, all the fishermen, water skiers, and swimmers go downriver to enjoy the warmer water temps, leaving the race course area to the rowers.
(Ed.'s note: it is worth mentioning that I originally got upriver and downriver backwards - the steam plant and nuclear sites are DOWNRIVER of the racecourse - it's probably an understatement to say this is no quibble.)
That isn't to say that the athlete's notion was too far off; there is a small amount of radioactive leakage into the Clinch River, of which Melton Hill Lake is a part, about 30 miles upriver from the course. There you will find a small pond surrounded by chain link fencing and marked by the familiar "Radioactive" signs; the pond neighbors a spot where radioactive plates were buried some decades ago, and a carefully monitored and very small amount of radioactive leakage occurs continuously.
The community of Oak Ridge cropped up almost out of nowhere 60 years ago, shortly after the dawn of the nuclear age, as a nucleus of nuclear research for the Manhattan Project; the local population grew from 3000 in 1942 to about 75000 in 1945. The existence of the town was a state secret for some time and was neither officially recognized nor did it appear on maps until after the end of WWII, was entirely surrounded by a fence during much of that time, was known as The Secret City, and was not even named until 1949. It is said that during the 50's and early 60's, there were more nuclear physicists per capita in Oak Ridge than anywhere in the world.
Tremendous thanks to Bruce Wilson for the oral history of the place. (Ed.s note: I'm told i got some of the upriver vs. downriver directions wrong in my seat of the pants history; nonetheless, still a decent venue with an interesting local story.)
One recent development worth noting: in the aftermath of Wendy Davis's bicycle accident at South/Central's, coaches have been instructed that the NCAA has banned the use of bicycles this along the course during practice or racing. Wendy is doing well, which is the most important thing; given how recently this happened, the call is somewhat understandable, although the point has been made that bicycles have been part of the sport since the days of greased pants, so the judgement seems a bit quick and arbitrary to some. Instead, coaches are organizing shuttle vans to drive alongside the course, to be driven by disinterested parties.
Finally, referee Lynn Wylder, who frequently assumes starter's duties on Day One of the NCAA, educated me to the official Southern starting commands: "Y'all ready' Awright then - git!" I believe it will be all she can do to start the first race tomorrow using any other commands.
Racing starts at 8am with the first heat of the DI Varsity Eight; tremendous luck to all!