Where the river sports at?

how the Chippewa Valley could engage our rivers athletically

Rivers and athletics. When you think of the word “rivers” in the context of sports, you are likely to think of one of several subjects: the Big Rivers Conference, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and/or former baseball player/pseudo-oddball Mickey Rivers. Otherwise, a drive over the Lake Street bridge is not likely to get you thinking of feats of athletic prowess… unless you count tubing on the Chippewa River on a clear and muggy 97-degree day to be an example of human endurance.

As noted in this issue, the rivers in Eau Claire – and surrounding areas – are one of the defining features of our region. As far as sports are concerned, geographic features are the basis for games and are competition characteristics of certain locations. Communities in mountain ranges are sometimes connected with skiing and snow sports, while Minnesota is renowned for hockey on its 10,000 frozen ponds (and fishing in the summer when they become lakes). Yet rivers do not tend to stand out much in an athletic sense.

Having watched an exorbitant amount of Olympic coverage over the summer, I was reminded of the wide array of sports genres. This gave me an opportunity to decide how we could put our rivers to a sporting use. The Olympics seem to cover just about anything that could be called a “legitimate” sport, and the ones they leave out are usually dominated by a couple countries or never feature the world’s best in that sport – and, really, there are no professional rowers skipping the Olympics for the National Rowing League. Let us take a moment and see if any of the river-based Olympic sports could thrive in the Chippewa Valley.

I just mentioned rowing, so we begin with that, and immediately eliminate it from local contention. Rowing requires a perfectly-straight body of water, preferably with some more sedate waters. Perhaps one of our lakes would suffice, and considering the number of Wisconsin-rowing Olympians, we could perhaps get a bit of a feeder program underway. However, river-wise, this is probably a no-go.
Marathon swimming is lesser-known than the indoor races dominated by the Phelpses and Franklins of the world. However, considering its nature as the ultimate test of swimming endurance – 10 kilometers, or a little over six miles – the sport has a definite character. The Summer Olympics marathon swimmers went around loops in the Serpentine in Hyde Park in London, so using the Chippewa River or Dells Pond, could be possibilities. If only we had a sufficient number of marathon swimmers in the region.

Kayaking would need some serious rapids, the likes of which we lack in the metro area… unless you count the immediate aftermath of the Dells Dam, which would be simply taking extreme sports to inhumane, albeit thrilling, levels. Sailing needs a lot of space and a fair amount of wind. I used to dream about re-creating the end of Duran Duran’s “Rio” video on Lake Altoona, but realized by the time the yacht would get to a decent speed, I would be crashing head-on into the dam. So, that one is also out, as are pretty much all Olympic sports.

We do not have to look to the top-level sports of the world to find something to do on the Chippewa. Why not create our own river-based leagues? We have enough dart and volleyball leagues at local taverns, and we have plenty of tubers from University students and recent grads; why not tubing leagues? Organize a team of tubers, find a start and finish location (à la FATFAR), make sure there is NO alcohol involved while on the river, and use subtle leg paddling to reach an end point. This could even extend into a semi-pro tubing league of sorts. Maybe. Or not.

The other option is to not bother with the “athletic” when it comes to the rivers and focus solely on the “aesthetic.” Our rivers can simply be a place for play, for respite, for gazing, for rest. A place to hop in a tube with friends, de-stress from life, float, and be wholly-non-athletic; a place to rejuvenate ourselves to again take to the field, court, or rink for more acts of athletic excellence. Float on.

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