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With Olympic Aspirations, OCU Athletes Prepare for Home Regatta

by Rod Jones

When the Head of the Oklahoma Regatta begins later this week, one of Oklahoma City University’s elite student-athletes will be thinking well beyond a winning performance.

Fifth-year senior Leigh Smith’s goals include Oxford, Cambridge and even beyond, perhaps even as high as the Olympic team. Smith has been hitting the water before the sun rises each morning in hopes of getting fast enough to join the national team for the 2020 games in Japan.

That dedication earned Smith and some of her OCU teammates a spot on the U.S. World University Games team, an honor considered a stepping stone to the U.S. Olympic team.

“That was a good experience for me to see where I am and where I need to go,” Smith said.

OCU had a total of seven student-athletes qualify for the games, which were held in South Korea in July. Stars coach Eliza Dickson coached the women’s team.

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and returned to OCU to finish out her minor in biology. She hopes to continue her studies in one of those subjects at one of the distinguished schools in England — Oxford for theology or Cambridge for microbiology.

Those two schools are competitors in several prestigious categories, perhaps most notably in an annual event simply known as “The Boat Races.” The competition dates back to 1829 and takes place on the River Thames in London with thousands of spectators.

No matter which of the rival schools she ends up with, Smith wants to row at the highest level. Oklahoma City is one of three Olympic rowing training sites in the country, so Smith has already trained with some national team athletes.

Smith was a walk-on to the rowing team during her sophomore year. She said she changed sports from cross country after an inspiring visit to the Boathouse District.

“I’ve always loved competing in sports,” she said. “I went to the boathouse one day, saw how great it was and thought, ‘too bad I’m running instead of rowing.’ After thinking about it a little longer I decided to give it a shot.”

In her latest competition, Smith and teammate Savannah Godber posted a fifth-place finish in the women’s lightweight doublein the inaugural Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship in May.

The OCU team as a whole is hoping the momentum from last season continues into the 2015-16 season. The Stars won the Head of the Hooch team points in Tennessee last November.OCU finished eighth in the overall team standings — combining men’s and women’s points — at the Dad Vail Regatta, a performance that Coach Knopp called “the most successful day in OCU rowing history and a very fitting end to our 10th anniversary season.” The women’s varsity eight took sixth in the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships in May.

In last year’s Head of the Oklahoma, OCU collected victories in the men's collegiate single, open pair and open four while placing in the open quad. The women finished second place in the women's collegiate single and open quad.

The Oklahoma Regatta opens the rowing season for the OCU team.Oklahoma City University’s Head of the Oklahoma Regatta is part of the four-day Oklahoma Regatta Festival. OCU started the regatta in 2004. The event has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing rowing competitions. 

 “We are always excited to compete in our ‘home’ regatta in front of alumni, friends and family,” Coach Dickson said. “It's a great experience for us competitively and we also have a lot of fun because of we get to row out of our home at Devon Boathouse against some top-notch competition. The NightSprints under the lights on Saturday are a particular highlight because Oklahoma City is the only place in the country rowers can do that. It showcases our team, boathouse district and our city in such a unique way.”

The regatta will include 2.5-mile head races, 4,000-meter and 200-meter kayak races, and the OGE NightSprints featuring collegiate rowing, corporate rowing and dragon boat racing.

The Oklahoma Regatta Festival is Thursday through Sunday in the Boathouse District at 725 S. Lincoln Blvd.

For more information visit the event website at boathousedistrict.org.