Why are Olympic hopefuls moving to Austin? Lady Bird Lake, of course


Top rowers train on Austin’s Lady Bird Lake (Picture: Jasper Liu)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some of the country’s most elite rowers are hoping that Austin – and Lady Bird Lake – are the missing pieces of the puzzle that could help bring them international success.

The Texas Rowing Center has attracted elite rowers and coaches to join its new high performance team, which will be based at the lake downtown.

The team has one goal – to prepare rowing’s cream of the crop for the World Championships and Olympic Games.

Five athletes are already signed up, and they will all be based in Central Texas by November.

“The expectations aren’t just make the national team, go to the World Championships,” said Jasper Liu, one of the rowers on the program. “We want to actually do well – be in the A final, be on the medal stand, go to the Olympics.”

Austin has quietly become a rowing hotspot.

Liu, who has competed for the USA but just missed qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, said the climate makes it an ideal destination for rowers, especially in winter.

“We’ve been going to Austin for winter training camps because it’s warmer in January and got to know Matt, the owner of Texas Rowing Center really well,” Liu explained. “We just really enjoyed our time down there. Austin is a great place to train.”

Not only that, but Lady Bird Lake is a perfect training ground – so long as the rowing boats can avoid the paddleboards and kayaks.

Liu highlighted its five-mile length, that it’s shaded and protected from the wind, easily accessible, the waves are few and far between and it doesn’t freeze in winter.

Chinese National Rowing Team 12-2019
China’s Olympic rowing team trains on Lady Bird Lake in 2020 (KXAN Photo/Evan L’Roy)

“I guess the one downside would actually be all the paddleboarders and kayaks out there on the really nice days,” Liu added. “Fortunately we do the bulk of our training in the mornings before a lot of people get out there so it’s uncrowded, and in the winter when it’s cold out people don’t really want to be on the paddleboards anyway.”

Peter Mansfeld, the high performance head coach at the Texas Rowing Center, who is originally from Germany, said they had to rethink their strategy after they missed out on Olympic qualification.

“We sat together and analyzed what was good in the preparation, what was not so good,” he said. “Our thinking was, if we keep doing what we are doing, how can we expect to achieve different results in the future?”

Reflecting on their successful training camps in Austin, Mansfeld came to an agreement with Texas Rowing Center owner Matt Knifton to make Austin the permanent home for the team.

“The goal, why we would do such a tremendous effort and move places, turn everything upside down, is to qualify those four or five athletes to the Olympic Games,” he said.

If that happens and members of the team do qualify, they would have a medal chance as the gap between the top athletes is so small, Mansfeld added.

Mansfeld is already living in Austin and said he’s had a warm welcome from the rowing center and its members – he said he’s particularly impressed by the dedication and fitness of the club’s older rowers, known as ‘masters’.

“It’s a town that invites you to be active,” he said.

He also singled out Lady Bird Lake as an advantage, pointing out it is about four times longer than the regatta courses that many teams train on.

Chinese National Rowing Team 12-2019
China’s Olympic rowing team trains on Lady Bird Lake in 2020 (KXAN Photo/Evan L’Roy)

“I’m pretty positive that if you change your circumstances and adjust your training, I’m pretty positive that we get faster and better and bring Austin even more on the table as a high performance hub in the United States,” he added.

After missing out on Tokyo, Liu has his sights set on the Paris Olympics in 2024.

In the meantime, he hopes that the high performance team can add to Austin’s rowing culture.

He said that rowing is a good workout for the whole body – so good in fact that Liu is adamant 30 minutes of rowing is better than anything else a person can do to exercise.

“It’s nice being outside, being in nature, seeing the sun rise, all that good stuff,” he added.

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