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Olympics a Homecoming for OCU Kayak Coach

Oklahoma City University’s canoe/kayak coach should be fully tuned up for competition when his team takes to the water for the Head of the Oklahoma Regatta Sept. 27-30. After all, his warm-up coaching experience this season came from the sport’s grandest stage — the Olympic games in London.

Shaun Caven coached and managed the 2012 U.S. Olympic Sprint Canoe/Kayak Team. He is now preparing the OCU Stars for the season-opening Head of the Oklahoma regatta at Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District.

 Caven has been OCU’s head coach since 2010, when the university became the first in the nation to establish a varsity canoe/kayak team. He previously coached the British Olympic Canoe Sprint team, which included a gold medalist kayaker in the 2008 games.

Caven is originally from Castle Douglas, Scotland. After leading the Scotland national team, he moved to London to coach and worked at the same lake where the Olympic rowing and kayak events were held. He lived two miles from the venue for about four years, so his return for this summer’s games was literally a homecoming.

“I knew the venue really well and my way around, but it looked a lot different than when I lived there,” he said. “Of course a lot of it was temporary, like the grandstands on both sides of the race course. Even now, just a few weeks later, it probably doesn’t look like it did during the games.”

Caven’s former home-course connections in London came in handy during the Olympics. He knew many of the officials and staff of the venue, which made it easier to track down the things the team needed to compete.

“If we needed help with anything, I knew just who to ask. Most coaches would have to fill out paperwork and then figure out who they needed to give it to,” he said.

During the races, the coaches were permitted to ride bicycles along a designated path alongside their athletes as they paddled down the racecourse. Even if the coaches were allowed to give instructions from the shoreline, Caven said it wouldn’t have done much good.

“I was surprised at how many people were there to cheer us on. I’ve never seen a crowd like that at a competition before and the noise was ridiculous. Even if we could shout instructions, the athletes wouldn’t have heard us anyway,” he said.

Most of the race-time coaching involved getting split times, counting stroke rates and sizing up the competition to gauge what their athletes needed to do in following races.

Caven and Team USA first went to Milan, Italy, to train for the Olympic competition. They went to London soon after the rowing events were finished and stayed for 11 days. The team made its temporary home at a college campus approximately 25 minutes from the venue.

The London games marked the third time Caven has coached athletes who made it to the Olympics. He says he learns more and more each time about what it takes to compete at the highest level in the sport’s biggest events.

“The hardest part is to not get caught up in the hype too much,” he said. “You watch the elite teams and see how they do it, and learn some interesting ways to keep your athletes focused. The most important thing is to make sure your athletes are OK. Everything else, the training and technique, should be done well before you get there.”

One of the perks of competing in the Olympics is the abundance of free food. It’s also a challenge, because not all of it is necessarily ideal for athletic performance.

“Athletes eat for free, and the food is everywhere. If you want to eat 10 hamburgers for lunch, they’ll let you eat 10 hamburgers,” he said.

Although reaching the Olympics is a lofty goal for athletes of any sport, it’s particularly difficult for kayakers, he noted. Only those who place in the top eight during the World Championships or win their continental championships are invited to the games.

Canoe/kayak is a minority sport in the U.S. and had success in the late ’80s with Greg Barton and Norm Bellingham winning gold medals. Caven’s aim is to compete once again with the likes of Germany and Hungary, which dominated this year’s Olympics and have more mature programs. Great Britain, Russia and many Eastern European countries are also in the elite category.

Despite the glitz and glamour of the Olympics, Caven said he was happy to be back at his home venue, the Devon Boathouse, which he says is “second to no one. I’d say we have the best facilities in the world.”

 Oklahoma City is set to host the 2014 World Championships, and he’s hoping that the excitement will encourage more involvement with the sport.

Oklahoma City already has one of the largest children’s kayak programs in the country, and Caven wants that growth to continue not only for the benefit of the city, but also for the country.

“When you consider that most of these kids had never even seen a kayak (before the Boathouse District was created a few years ago), I’d say we’re doing pretty good. As I’ve been saying since I got here, as long as you give these kids the equipment, a piece of water and an opportunity, you can produce championships,” he said.

Oklahoma City Riversport kayaking is now in its fourth year of Caven’s 10-year plan, and the Oklahoma River has already been named the host venue for some of the country’s most elite events.

He thinks that other river improvements like the upcoming Sky Trail, zip line course, whitewater course and possible mountain bike trails could add to the popularity of sprint kayak.

“If people are having fun doing other things at the river, they might be encouraged to try kayaking,” he said.

Just before the Head of the Oklahoma, the canoe/kayak team will head to Rome for the World Championships Sept. 22 and 23. Three OCU student-athletes will participate — Kaitlyn McElroy, Maggie Hogan and Austin Schwinn — who each won medals at the USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships this year.

Oklahoma City University’s Head of the Oklahoma Regatta is part of the four-day Oklahoma Regatta Festival featuring rowing, kayaking and dragon boat racing on the Oklahoma River in downtown Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District. Find out more at www.headoftheoklahoma.com.