IF YOU GO
The Ocoee River Championships will continue Saturday at 10 a.m. with freestyle, the downriver race and a stand-up paddleboard slalom race. The championships will conclude Sunday with morning events beginning at 10:30 a.m. before awards conclude the weekend at 3 p.m.
The rapids built to impress the world are once again captivating the paddling community as competition returns to this region's whitewater jewel for the first time in nearly two decades.
Competition at the Upper Ocoee's whitewater center ceased after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The center, which was built for the 1996 Olympics, remained a gem of the paddling world after the games for several years, but travel concerns led organizers to cancel events in 2002. As years passed, no one stepped forward to host an event until earlier this year, when a duo announced the Ocoee River Championships.
"I knew it would always come together, but in the back of my mind I did think about what would happen if this disappeared," said Brent Rogers, owner of title sponsor Raft One. "It is one of the greatest rivers in the United States."
Local paddlers argue the section is one of the best venues for competition in the nation. Its challenging Class III and IV rapids pair with accessibility for fans and competitors. The river is within a day's drive of several major cities, runs adjacent to Highway 64, has onsite parking, restrooms and space for spectators on both sides of the river.
However, the popularity of rafting on the river made it difficult for local paddlers to host competitions. The event is a major undertaking that requires both knowledge of the river and of hosting a competition. The Ocoee is the most traveled whitewater river for rafting in the country, and while that mostly takes place on the river's middle section, most in the community who had the knowledge and ability to host the competition were busy during paddling season operating rafting outfitters.
Then came a duo with an idea to start a competition in coordination with a local nonprofit group.
Paddlers Jen Maxwell and Jeremy Adkins are directing the competition with proceeds going to the Ocoee River Basin Foundation. The event is free to spectators, but fundraising is taking place at after-party events hosted at Adventures Unlimited. The money will be used to add locking stations at the Middle Ocoee put-in/Upper Ocoee takeout and the Middle Ocoee private takeout. They'll also build a changing station for private boaters at the Middle Ocoee private boat takeout.
"Really, this is bringing back world-class competition to a world-class venue," Adkins said.
Adkins predicted more than a thousand spectators would attend over the weekend, with most expected to take in Saturday's competition. The event was planned in about four months, and the directors are focused on gaining experience this weekend before growing it next year. They picture national and international championships, along with a smorgasbord of paddling events in the future. More than 150 paddlers registered for this weekend, surpassing Adkins' expectations.
Several paddlers from the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte traveled to compete, including manager Fergus Coffey, who remembered watching the 1996 Olympics from his home in the United Kingdom.
"It's awesome, this is a classic," he said. "I remember watching. I started paddling in '94, and I remember watching the guys at the top of the game competing here in '96. To come out here and paddle on the same course is pretty damn fun."
Hundreds of spectators, competitors and volunteers attended Friday, lining rocks along the river to take in the event within feet of the paddlers. Two such spectators were Birmingham residents Karen and Steven Gowins.
The couple met through kayaking and attended the 1996 Olympics. They bought a home near the Ocoee River and were enthused to see competition back on the river.
"I think they need to do more of this here," she said. "It's a great site, close to major cities."
Contact staff writer Mark Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.