Canoe/kayak could be staging a comeback

I wondered if I had hit a time warp when I spotted Joe Jacobi's name among the podium finishers at the U.S. canoe and kayak national slalom championships held in Dickerson, Md., the last weekend of September.

Jacobi, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the double canoe (C-2) slalom event, teamed with Scott Davis to take second place in the same event. Since Jacobi is 41, and just had the "interim" dropped from his chief executive officer's title at USA Canoe/Kayak, I figured this might constitute a story.

"I am absolutely not making a comeback," Jacobi said, laughing, when I reached him at the federation's offices in Charlotte, N.C.

He and Davis were one of three entries in the race. "As I like to say, I finished in the top two-thirds of the field," said Jacobi, who hadn't raced in his specialty since the 2004 Olympic Games. "We don't have any competitive restrictions in our national championships. The spirit of them is to bring our community together -- juniors, Olympic contenders, and guys like me."

Jacobi took over last spring with the mandate of recruiting new talent at the grassroots level and elevating the quality of the sport's major events in this country by bringing in more sponsorship dollars and making them more spectator-friendly. He likes his chances. "Adventure and outdoor sports are so much more part of the fabric of communities than they were 20 years ago," he said.

The U.S. team has some distance to make up on the Olympic level, having been shut out of medals in two of the past three Summer Games. (Rebecca Giddens' silver in the K-1 event in 2004 was the lone exception.) Jacobi's gold, won with Scott Strasbaugh, is one of just five the U.S. has collected in the paddling sports, which are dominated by European countries.

A new generation of elite paddlers could be developed in what seems like an unlikely environment at first glance -- a formerly dry riverbed in the Dust Bowl capital of Oklahoma City. Voters approved a 1993 sales tax increase to start water flowing there again after decades where the river had been diverted to avoid flooding, and to develop the riverfront as a community resource. A system of dams and locks was built, and somewhat inadvertently, the river proved well-suited -- although sometimes a bit windy -- for sprint (flatwater) events.

Several local colleges and universities recently established programs in canoe, kayak and rowing on the rejuvenated river. Last weekend saw the christening of the second of two privately-owned, state-of-the-art high performance centers -- the Devon Boathouse, whose striking contemporary architecture will complement that of the nearby Chesapeake Boathouse. Both received major funding from energy companies. Oklahoma City hosted the 2008 Olympic Trials for sprint events, and the national under-23 sprinters are based there.

Jacobi said the U.S. men look strongest in whitewater events going into the lead-up to London 2012, citing past Olympic kayakers Scott Parsons and Brett Heyl, a four-time national champion and silver medalist on the World Cup circuit, 2008 alternate Scott Mann, and canoer Benn Fraker, who finished 18th in Beijing in C-1. Jacobi also predicted a return to the top for veteran Carrie Johnson, a two-time Olympian in flatwater events who has battled Crohn's Disease intermittently during her career.