While U.S. sprint kayakers bear down for their most daunting challenge — Olympic qualifying — the U.S. Olympic Committee has stripped the senior national team of its funding.
If that sounds strange on land, imagine how it sounded to the kayakers who have been beating their brains out on the water at Ala Wai, Lake Lanier, Ga., and San Diego.
U.S. Canoe and Kayak hired former Australian coach Guy Wilding to guide its senior national team in February, after getting him to commit to at least two years and, ideally, six, and offering "increased funding." He said yes after he was allowed to base his training in Hawaii. Paradise produced at least one kayaker for every Olympic team from 1988 to 2004 and brothers Pat and Ryan Dolan, two of the country’s best Olympic prospects, are from Kailua.
"I use it as motivation right now," Ryan Dolan says. "I want to prove to these guys we do have a good system here, our coach is worth funding. I’m pretty mad."
Wilding and wife Shelley Oates-Wilding, head coach of the Hawaii Canoe & Kayak Team, moved their family here from Down Under in June. In November, Wilding was told he would no longer be paid as of Jan. 1 and all funding would be cut. The explanation was that the USOC had a $5 million shortfall and went to each sport asking for cuts. His program was judged as not having medal potential and axed.
"They did it based on last year’s World Championship results," Wilding said. "It’s totally the wrong thing to do. These guys, the oldest guys we’ve got are 25 and the oldest of the rest is 23. In their sport, that’s young. A gold medalist in Beijing was 36. It’s just dumb."
USCKT has now found enough to pay him into May, but no one really knows what is in the future. Athletes need to get to trials and world championships. Last October, the U.S. men qualified all six boats for the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara in October. It is a second-chance Olympic qualifier.
The USOC’s cut could not have been any deeper, or at a worse time. Connie Hagler, Chairman of the Sprint Governance Committee for USA Canoe Kayak, saw her sport shut out while USCKT’s other programs kept funds and said she was "blind-sided."
Then she realized there was no time to grieve or grumble.
"Everybody was shocked, particularly since the USOC hired Guy six months earlier," Hagler said by phone from Georgia. "All that just doesn’t sound right, but that doesn’t really matter. They’ve done what they’ve done. Now we have to pick up the pieces and make it good. We only have until August (World Championships) to get ready. The athletes are very talented, but we’ve got to get them so they are not worried about this and the coaches aren’t worried. They have got a huge task."
Hagler now talks of a "paradigm shift" for all small Olympic sports. They have traditionally worked with whatever the USOC gave them because most don’t have the huge membership of something like swimming, which can fund a national program on dues alone.
|"I use it as motivation right now. I want to prove to these guys we do have a good system here, our coach is worth funding. I’m pretty mad."
Hagler sees support of all small Olympic sports shifting solely to families and communities. They will fund and nurture grassroots programs that ultimately build a "larger critical mass" that can support itself. She sounds optimistic.
"The chair of the international canoe racing federation always said if anybody ever woke the sleeping giant of sport — the United States — it would take over because of all the resources here," she says. "We’ve always been held in check by the way the sport is funded here. It really is a huge opportunity."
But for 2012 Olympic kayak prospects, it is a huge headache. Even Hagler concedes the national spring team needs "emergency help." The HCKT has offered support and is "madly going to companies and madly going after grants," says Oates-Wilding, who was an Olympic kayaker for Australia.
She figures the program needs less than $100,000 to get through U.S. Trials, World Championships and the Pan Am Games. Morgan House, from Georgia, trains here and is now in the U.S. K-4 boat with Pat Dolan and brothers Luke and Jake Michael (Ryan Dolan paddles K-1 200). House estimated he would need between $10,000 and $15,000 to train and travel to competitions this year.
If the boats qualify for next year’s Games in London, the feeling is that the USOC would offer support. But "between April and October we still have no clue if Guy is getting paid or not," Oates-Wilding says. "The people in our club are very supportive, but that’s not their responsibility. It should be a national thing."
She is searching for stability for the kayakers training three times a day to compete against fully funded teams.
The HCKT’s involvement is instrumental. The club started with a USOC grant in 1988, which brought Billy Whitford here to recruit and train. HCKT won five straight national championships and its athletes were an integral part of Team USA’s Junior World Championship and Pan Am teams. Costs have cut back those numbers over the years, but just 15 Hawaii athletes won 20 medals at last year’s nationals.
Oates-Wilding vision for the club, beyond helping its best and brightest, is now focused on four elements:
» Starting an HCKT Waterman’s Academy this summer, to introduce every child with an interest to every paddle sport;
» A Hawaii Center of Excellence, to attract elite international athletes in paddle sports. Japan’s national kayaking team trained here in February and Canada is coming;
» Fundraising, with the 35th annual Molokai World Championships/Long Distance Surfski Race in May a major element; and
» The second annual World Paddle Expo in October.
Before that, there is a Clean Up the Ala Wai day on April 9, with the club looking for community support. It already has a crane to pull out the 12 (at last count) cars in the canal, along with assorted motors and other large elements.
"We have to bring the community into HCKT," Oates-Wilding says. "The whole push is for these guys going to the Olympics. Unless we can fund it, it will go back to what it was, where occasionally someone who is good will go to the mainland and train and there is nothing there for them and they peter out."