By Thomas Hall
The Pines Resort and Apartments is surrounded by seven golf courses and the town of Indian Harbor Beach, Florida. The Atlantic is a mile east, and the Orlando/Disney-plex is about an hour northwest. But elite sprint paddlers don’t come here for the beaches or the Mouse; they come for the water. The Pines sits on the edge of the Banana River and is adjacent to a seven-mile stretch of canal that is almost perfect for long-distance flatwater spring training. It's so good in fact, that out of the 36 possible Olympic medals in sprint canoe kayak at the 2012 London Olympics, 11 were won by athletes who trained at The Pines.
I asked the current owner, Alex Altman, how The Pines got its start. He told me Monty McGuire built it in the 1960s as a winter escape for northern snowbirds–the resort offers apartments for rent by the night, week or month. Altman wasn't sure how the transition from The Pines Resort and Apartments into The Pines International Training Center began, so he directed me to William Jurgens, athletic director at the Florida Institute of Technology.
Turns out, Jurgens is the man who started it all. He had been training the FIT rowing team near The Pines in the 1970s to take advantage of the canal. FITs results soon convinced other rowing teams that The Pines would be a good place for spring training. Athletes from all over the east began to show up, oars in hand ready to ply the brackish waters of the river and canal. Then, in the early eighties, Jurgens invited a kayak coach, Paul Podgorski, to come take a look at the area and watch the Governors Cup rowing race on the Banana River. Podgorski liked what he saw and a few years later—1986 according to multiple U.S. Olympic medalist Greg Barton—the U.S. team traveled from their spring training camp on the Gulf Coast of Florida to The Pines. Soon the Canadian team was coming down en masse, and European teams followed a few years later.
That's roughly how it came to be. Not very different from what I suspected, but I would like to point out one thing: Jurgens thought to invite a man he didn't know—but presumably felt some kinship with, as both of them were coaches of a flatwater sport, and thus endlessly frustrated with the impossibility of finding consistent flatwater—to come to see a place that might be good for training. They weren't friends, and they aren't in touch now—it was just a nice thing to do. At the risk of imposing meaning where there isn't any, I think Jurgens' gesture is still expressed in the prevailing attitude of respect that one finds at The Pines.
With only a cursory look at The Pines during February, March and April, all you'd see is incredibly fit people in spandex doing something with boats and paddles, while the residents play bocce or horseshoes. But if you linger and talk to athletes, something else begins to become apparent. Athletes from around the world come here to better themselves and work side by side for something almost impossible to attain—Olympic gold. This year I watched groups of canoers and kayakers from New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Tunisia, Serbia, Korea, Canada, Ireland and the United States push each other, work together, and prepare for an eventual race in which years of sweat will be distilled into seconds of pain and effort.
Taking 200 people with the same crazy dream and throwing them into a sleepy vacation community to live and train together for three months sounds like a take on Big Brother, but it actually doesn't descend into a nightmare of sabotage and backstabbing. What you end up with is people helping each other, offering a sympathetic ear during hard training cycles, and developing life-long friendships. People who may not share a language or a flag chose to work together knowing that everyone will gain by their mutual efforts.
The Pines, as a canoe/kayak training camp, was born of a generous gesture, and that generosity lives on in the generations of paddlers that have passed through it since and who will continue to pass through in their attempt to become the best.