It was pure coincidence that the clouds over Oklahoma City temporarily lifted as Nathan Luce took the Chesapeake Boathouse podium Thursday. Overcast skies blanketed the Oklahoma River most of the morning, and wind gusts near 20 mph stirred the water to a murky green. Nearly a hundred paddlers shuffled in and out of tents near the dock, steadying their vessels against the wind. Luce walked out of the first hint of sunshine and into a press conference to praise the host of the 2008 U.S. Sprint Canoe/Kayak Olympic Trials. "(Oklahoma City) definitely followed through on what it promised,” Luce said. "The (boathouse), the treatment of the athletes, the service. And the water — obviously, you can go for miles and miles and get a really good training session in...” He grinned. "...If the wind stays under control.” Since the Chesapeake Boathouse opened in Jan. 2006, Oklahoma City has become an unlikely hub for world-class boating events. The long, straight and wide channel of the Oklahoma River is perfectly suited for racing lanes, and crafts ranging from rowing shells to drag boats to dragon boats have taken full advantage of the facility. The river is ideal. The weather, not so much. And the Olympic canoe/kayaking team is learning that. "Our biggest concern from the athletes' standpoint is the weather,” said Rami Zur, one of two paddlers who will qualify for the Beijing Games with a victory this weekend. "We're really afraid of the wind. You can have a race in these conditions, but not the magnitude of the Olympic trials.” Because canoe/kayaking is an outdoor sport, weather almost always factors into the races. And conditions could certainly be worse than 20 mph gusts — during Canadian team trials in Georgia last year, violent winds blew the paddles out of athletes' hands. "I think most of the races we've had internationally and nationally, we've had to deal with some sort of weather condition,” said Susannah Stucchio, one of the top women's sprint athletes. "We should be able to deal with a variety of conditions. There are always concerns. When you have a certain wind, you have to kind of tweak your technique.” If a strong wind blows across the river it can slow paddlers in the outside lanes, giving inside racers an advantage. "We want to send the fastest boat,” said Zur, a two-time Olympian. "We want to make this as fair as possible. We put so many years in training for this moment; I hope everything turns out for the best.” Athletes first expressed concern about the conditions in Oklahoma City while holding an exhibition on the Oklahoma River during the Centennial Regatta last October. "It was supposed to be a test event, but it didn't pass the test,” Zur said of the 30-plus mph swirling winds and sub-60 degree temperatures that greeted Olympic paddlers during the exhibition. The weather forecast for this weekend is less severe. Today shows a high near 70 degrees with winds between 20 and 30 mph, but Saturday and Sunday are expected to be calm and clear with highs around 80 degrees. After the exhibition, athletes inquired about relocating the trials. The Olympic committee balked at the notion. Instead, it spent the months between October and April sending coaches, officials and technicians to Oklahoma City to test and re-test the course, making sure weather conditions wouldn't affect the trials. "We designed this course and the event to provide all the flexibility to deal with certain sets of circumstances,” said David Yarborough, executive director of USA Kanoe/Kayak, who ranks the Oklahoma River among the top canoe/kayaking facilities in North America. "We think we accomplished that.” Technicians installed an extra lane to shift the course north or south as crosswinds become an issue. Officials will monitor wind meters at the starting line. If gusts put outside racers at a disadvantage, officials have been given flexibility with lane seeding. The schedule is flexible, too. If the weather becomes too severe, officials can cancel or postpone events. "We're going to make a call on whether or not we've got nine fair lanes,” said head official Charles Luckman. "Tomorrow, winds are forecast from the northwest. That will produce a headwind that will be equally bad. But it will be fair, so we'll go.” Coach Nathan Luce, for one, is hopeful. "I'm aware of the concerns, but there's not a lot we can do about that,” he said. "What we can do is hope for the best and take advantage of the great elements of this course.”
Carrie Johnson of San Diego wipes down her equipment after taking a practice run Thursday for this weekend's Olympic Trials on the Oklahoma River. BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN U.S. Sprint Canoe/Kayak Olympic Trials
•When: Today-Sunday •Where: The Oklahoma River •If you're going: Spectators may enter the event at the corner of Reno and Lincoln. •Tickets: General admission tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12 and free for children five and under. For tickets call (405) 235-8288 or log onto www.ticketmaster.com.