DICKERSON -- Jon Lugbill climbed out of the steaming, 60-degree water into the frigid morning air and looked as if he would shout for joy.
"This is absolutely wonderful," said the five-time Whitewater World Champion after demonstrating the new man-made whitewater course at the Potomac Electric Power Company's Dickerson power plant in Montgomery County. "It came out of nowhere and it's good enough right now to have the world championships right here."
The U.S. whitewater team can now stay home. It has traveled the world to find adequate practice sites for past world championships and would have had to continue that tradition in preparing for the Olympic qualifying trials on the Savage River in Western Maryland on May 16 and 17 and the Olympics in La Seu d'Urgell, Spain, Aug. 1 and 2.
Yesterday, PEPCO held the official dedication ceremonies in sub-30-degree temperatures. As a crowd of about 100 people stood and shivered, Lugbill and his U.S. teammates happily splashed into the canal, whose water is heated by passing through the plant's turbines, and maneuvered through the 25-gate course.
Maryland has two world-class whitewater facilities, this one and the natural course on the Savage River, near McHenry. The Savage site, however, is often unavailable because water is low.
"I've been out here 20 times, and every time I come, I'm amazed," said U.S. National team coach Bill Endicott. "It's like looking at an impossible dream."
Without the new course, the team would be facing trips to New Zealand and Australia and several more to Spain. As it is, it will make one more trip to the Olympic site in March. But the costs are prohibitive: $160 an hour course rental, plus airfare, food and lodging.
The new course isn't a carbon copy of the Olympic course, but like that course it is man-made, so it has the same feel.
"It is the best course in the world to prepare on for the Olympics," said Endicott. "My only fear is other teams will hear of it. . . . If someone comes and says they want to train here, we'd probably say yes, because we'd be fearful of retaliation when we ask to train at their sites just before the Olympics."
The course is one of a kind. It is a 900-foot concrete canal about 30 feet wide. In it have been placed 75 concrete mounds, resembling gray gum drops, weighing about 17 tons each. The mounds have been placed strategically to represent the best whitewater courses in the world, including the Olympic course.
The cost of building the course from scratch has been estimated at about $1 million. If it had been necessary to pay the total cost to outfit the existing canal, the bills would have run up to approximately $300,000. But, because of the support of PEPCO and 17 other business organizations that donated time, expertise and inexpensive labor, the project is being completed for about $75,000.
Of that, PEPCO has chipped in $25,000, plus the original grant money to study the concept and come up with the model that has been turned into reality. Jennifer Hearn, director of the Bethesda Center of Excellence, the non-profit organization that originally suggested the idea to PEPCO, said the group still needs to raise about $28,000 to completely pay off the project.
"One of the ways we're raising money is to sell the individual boulders for $500 apiece and allow people to name them," said Hearn. "So far, we've raised $1,500 that way and been able to name three boulders."
PEPCO uses the canal as a sluiceway in which to return river water, used to cool the PEPCO plant's turbines, to the Potomac. The water, which rushes into the canal at 285,000 gallons a minute, is always about 20 degrees warmer than the river water.