COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — The International Canoe Federation is descending on Columbus this week as many of the world’s best kayakers prepare for the world championships.
The International Canoe Federation event is being held on the Chattahoochee River downtown. More than 300 athletes from 20 counties are arriving in town for the weeklong event that starts Monday and runs through next Saturday. It is free and open to the public.
This wave just below the 13th Street bridge is attracting the top athletes — and that didn’t happen by accident. This was a vision of Columbus businessman and philanthropist John Turner with the help of city leaders, business people, and others philanthropists.
And it all started 25 years ago.
Turner had a vision in the late 1990s. He wanted to take out dams and create free-flowing whitewater in an urban environment.
He knew in 1998 that the idea had merit when he brought whitewater consultants to Columbus to see what was possible.
“They were the architects of the Ocoee River Olympic venue,” Turner remembered. “And when they got here, the two guys turned to each other and said, the Olympics should have been here.”
A quarter of a century later and with a lot of water under the bridge, the world is in Columbus for the ICF freestyle kayak world championships.
Paul Shepherd is from England and worked in Nottingham where the world championships were held last year. He is judging this event and has paddled big water all over the world.
He has a message for Turner and the others who pulled this $26-million-dollar miracle off.
“They have built something that enables us to host the world championships which is great,” Shepherd said. “So, the first thing I would say is thank you very much. It is a lot of risks to do this. And hope what you get out on the end is some world-class rapids. It has massively paid off.”
Today, Turner admits there was risk and uncertainty when two dams — one at Eagle & Phenix Mill and the other upriver at City Mills were breached in March 2013.
“I was skeptical myself at first,” Turner said. “And had to visit a lot of rivers with experts to try and understand what was behind these dams. Because there was nobody more terrified when we blew the dam as to what we would find underwater than I was. It could have been. It could have like, ‘Oh, No.’”
Now Turner has a couple of wishes as these athletes from across the globe come to test themselves and the Chattahoochee waters.
“I would hope they are experiencing Southen hospitality,” he said. “And I would hope they would go forth and tell the world that this place exists. And maybe we are not on the radar like we should be yet.”
Shepherd says that won’t be a problem.
“The media and publicity that it brings, you are probably going to see American schools and colleges and kayak clubs seeing it and saying, ‘We didn’t know this place in Columbus was that cool,'” he said. “I think you will see some domestic, but you will see a lot of international.”