Tag Archives: Carter Lake

100 Years Strong

August 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Angling For Safe-To-Eat Fish

May 25, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Eating wild-caught fish from rivers, streams, and dam sites is almost as fun as catching them. But consuming too much of certain fish species is not advised. Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other pollutants can bioaccumulate inside some fish swimming in local waterways.

That doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t eat wild-caught fish—it just means that consumers should know what, how much, and how often they’re eating fish with potential trace amounts of contaminants.

A list of contaminated waters is maintained on the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s website. The department warns against long-term consumption of more than “eight ounces per week” of designated species of fish.

Mercury is a natural element in the environment, but it is often released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury that finds its way into local bodies of water can be transformed into methylmercury, which can then be absorbed by the aquatic life living there.

Mercury exposure affects nervous system and brain development. Developing fetuses and small children are the most affected, so parents and pregnant women should be cautious of mercury. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), on the other hand, are carcinogenic.

Testing for Pollutants

Greg Michl says the benefits of eating wild-caught fish outweigh the cons of mercury contamination, so long as one exercises proper precautions.

Michl has worked for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality for almost 27 years. As coordinator of the Nebraska Fish Tissue Program, he conducts investigations into surface water quality issues.

Methylmercury and PCB contamination in fish tissues are his primary concern. Michl says it’s easier to analyze bioconcentrations of these contaminants in fish tissues than it is to analyze in the water itself.

“We use fish as a surrogate,” says Michl, who is responsible for collecting tissue samples.

He uses electrofishing equipment to stun the fish before taking tissue samples—small biopsy plugs from near the dorsal spine—before returning the fish safely to the water. An Environmental Protection Agency lab then tests the samples, Michl assesses the data, and he reports his findings.

Methylmercury and PCB contamination appear to be under control in Nebraska. PCBs were first produced and marketed in the United States beginning in 1929.

PCBs gained widespread use as coolants and lubricants because of their remarkable insulating capacities and flame-retardant nature. Unfortunately, PCBs are extremely persistent in the environment and “bioconcentrate” within the food chain. As with methylymercury, fish absorb PCBs as they feed in contaminated waterbodies.

Fortunately, Michl reports that PCB concentrations in fish tissue are on the decline and only a few locations are still under advisory. EPA regulations banned the manufacture and use of PCBs in the late 1970s. Michl expects to see many PCB contamination sites fall off the radar in time.

As for mercury, “The U.S. has a pretty good system in place for regulating what goes into the air,” Michl says, “but eradicating contamination would have to be a worldwide effort. The U.S. can’t do it alone.”

Michl says methylmercury has been detected almost everywhere across the state of Nebraska “primarily in reservoirs and lakes,” and “we see it in some riverine systems’ fish.”

Beware of Predatory Fish

Sue Dempsey says there is “no solution at this time” to methylmercury contamination in local waters. For 25 years she has been a risk assessor and toxicologist for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in the Public Health division.

Her job, in part, is to help protect Nebraska citizens from contaminants in fisheries. “We monitor the fish and issue guidelines for fish consumption and ingestion,” she says. “We advise people on which species to choose.”

On methylmercury, she says bioaccumulation is a concern: “Big fish eat little fish, and it goes up the food chain.” She also warns that regional contaminants, such as pesticides, are a pollution concern for fisheries.

Nevertheless, she fishes, eats fish, and recommends others do the same while taking proper precautions. Dempsey’s advice on selecting and portioning fish to avoid contamination can be found in her “Eat Safe Fish in Nebraska” brochure, which she encourages the public to read.

Regarding wild-caught Nebraska fish, Dempsey says, “I’m big on moderation.” Her brochure advises that bluegill, crappie, perch, and rainbow trout have the lowest concentrations of methylmercury contamination. Catfish are acceptable, walleye and pike should be limited, and bass are not recommended.

Michl advises anglers to watch out for predator catfish such as the flathead, as they have higher concentrations of methylmercury than do channel catfish, which scavenge for food. But that does not mean avoid them entirely.

Dempsey says PCBs store in fat tissue of fish. “PCBs can be removed easily by removing portions and by baking,” she says. Baking allows the fat to drip away from the fish. Mercury appears throughout the entire fish.

So, the next time you’ve got a big Missouri River flathead on the line, and you have to decide whether to catch or release, consider the risk of contaminants when making your choice. I always advise catch-and-release of big catfish anyway. 

Fish Species and Pollutants of Concern in Local Waters

A 2015 report from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality warns of pollutants in 142 bodies of water across the state. Ten of the waterbodies are located in Douglas and Sarpy counties. The department’s list does not “ban eating fish” from the contaminated waters. Instead, the advisory urges consumers to limit long-term intake of specified fish species from the identified waterbodies “to eight ounces per week (for adults).”

Location—species—pollutant

Douglas County

  • Carter Lake—Largemouth Bass—PCBs
  • Prairie View Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Standing Bear Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Two Rivers Lake No. 1—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Zorinsky Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury

Sarpy County

  • Halleck Park Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury, Selenium
  • Offutt Lake—Channel Cat—PCBs
  • Walnut Creek Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Wehrspann Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • West Papillion Creek—Carp—PCBs, Mercury

For more information, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health produced the brochures “Eat Safe Fish in Nebraska” (dhhs.ne.gov/publichealth/documents/fishbrochureenglish.pdf) and “Environmental Risk Assessment Fish Consumption Advisories 2016” (dhhs.ne.gov/publichealth/pages/puh_enh_environmentalriskassessment_fishtissue.aspx), while the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has published 2015 results of its Regional Ambient Fish Tissue Program (deq.ne.gov/publica.nsf/pages/wat239).

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Dying for Opiates in Omaha

October 11, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman

Getting high on injected heroin—or one of the several synthetic equivalents—does not feel like an orgasm or a dozen orgasms. That is a mythical description the average non-user appreciates, so it gets repeated. The truth is more sinister. Whether you spike a vein with melted oxy in a back alley or get your Dilaudid prescribed in-hospital, getting high on injected opiates feels like being 4 years old, falling asleep in your mother’s lap while watching your favorite movie. You feel safe, warm, satisfied, and content to do nothing. Your nervous system melts like butter with a warm tingling sensation. Emotional and physical pain dissipate. Trauma becomes meaningless. You nod off. Occasionally, you approach consciousness long enough to melt into it again. And on it goes over and over. The first time is always the best, and no matter how long you chase that first high, you will never see it again.

According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015.

Anything above and beyond pain relief is experienced as a rush of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain. Addicts will escalate the amount of opioids they consume until coming across a bad batch mixed with other drugs—such as large-animal tranquilizers—or they stumble onto an unusually pure source, take too much, and overdose. Some users accidentally consume a fatal cocktail of prescriptions with alcohol or other drugs. In recent years, overdoses involving opiates have claimed the lives of several celebrities: the musician Prince, actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and the list goes on.

In the state of Nebraska, deaths from opiate overdoses are on the rise. According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that six out of every 10 drug overdoses involve opiates of some kind. From 1999 to 2014, roughly 165,000 Americans died from opiate-related overdoses, quadrupling the numbers from previous years, according to the Center for Disease Control. The death toll is climbing. The most recent CDC estimates suggest 78 Americans overdose on opiates every day.

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The Local Frontline

Russell Janssen is a case manager at the Open Door Mission, located between Carter Lake and the Missouri River. At age 20, he was introduced to heroin and was an intravenous user until the age of 39. Off heroin now for nearly two decades, Janssen spends his days treating people with the very addiction problems he has faced and continues to battle.

“I’ve been clean for 19 and a half years and I’ll still have ‘using’ dreams,” Janssen says. “They don’t affect me the way they used to. When I first cleaned up, I would wake up in cold sweats. I’d try to go back to sleep and just couldn’t. I still wake up to this day, but now I can lay down and go back to sleep. The thought is always there, though, and never leaves us.”

Heroin addiction is powerful, Janssen says, too powerful for anyone to be completely beyond it, especially if they think they are “too smart to get hooked.” And while most drugs will provide some high with diminishing returns, heroin burns out the brain’s pleasure center and forces users to do more and more in order to “stay even” and barely functional. Serious daily side effects include nausea, abdominal pain, high agitation, muscle cramps and spasms, as well as depression and cravings leading to relapse.

“The problem with heroin is you have to have it just to maintain,” Janssen says. “It’s not just about getting high. I’d go through $150 a day just to maintain for the 12 to 14 hours that I was up. If I wanted to get high I had to go above that amount because you gotta have it.”

And “it,” per Janssen, is never the same twice. Prescription opioids are a known quality, but black market drugs are unregulated and full of pitfalls. Drugs are cut with useless fillers and other substances to increase profits for dealers: “People die because they’re doing so many weird things with it. People died in Cincinnati, Ohio, because they were mixing elephant tranquilizer in with the heroin. And even though heroin addicts know that it’s out there—and they know it’s killing people—they go looking, thinking ‘I’ve got to have it just to maintain,’ so they’re willing to take that chance.”

Janssen says the access to opioids through prescriptions has changed the face of heroin addiction, making it easier and less stigmatic to start, the biggest mistake anyone can make.

“In the `70s, heroin addicts were the lowest of the low. Even other drug users didn’t want anything to do with heroin users. That’s changed a lot today because people get prescribed opiates, and they think that if a doctor prescribes it that it can’t be harmful for them. But that’s a way that people get addicted. We’re gonna see a lot more people out (in West Omaha) getting addicted.”

Chris Eynon is an eight-year recovering meth addict, a graduate of the Miracles Treatment Program at the Siena/Francis House, and, for the last two years, its treatment coordinator. He is seeing an increase in the number of people seeking help for heroin and opioid addiction.

“We are certainly seeing an increase in the amount of applicants wanting recovery here (in Omaha),” says Eynon, who has also witnessed the dire circumstances facing East Coast communities. He spent several weeks during March in Cumberland, Maryland, a town of roughly 20,000 where he was helping a friend to start a prayer service for heroin addicts. “Out on the East Coast, (heroin addiction) is really significant there. Just in the small community of Cumberland, they have been devastated. Last year in their county they experienced 14 deaths due to overdose, and as of this year already they have experienced over 30. Most of them are high school kids, and most of them are heroin overdoses.”

heroin2

From Vietnam Vets to Millennials

The current heroin/opioid epidemic is reminiscent of the Vietnam War era when access to plentiful and pure China White heroin combined with the stress of combat, and roughly 15 percent of all enlisted men had fallen into addiction. In 1971, Operation Golden Flow (the unofficial name of widespread military drug testing campaign) was designed by the Department of Defense to “clean up” American GIs before sending them home. While many came home and never used again because the circumstances of their drug use changed drastically, others relapsed at home as black market heroin followed the demand back from Vietnam to the U.S.

A New York Times article from May 1986 reported the number of U.S. addicts at roughly 500,000 (with 200,000 in New York alone). That heroin epidemic began subsiding as popularity for crack cocaine took over the streets. Studies from the Golden Flow era laid the groundwork for much of what we know about opioid addiction in 2016.

With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.” The 2011 study reported that veterans are twice as likely to suffer accidentally fatal opioid overdoses than non-veteran civilians. Since the 2012 height of the VA’s opioid prescriptions to veterans, the federal department has made an effort to decrease opiate prescriptions in favor of more comprehensive approaches to pain management.

Over the past 10 years, the CDC has observed that heroin use among 18-25 year olds has more than doubled in the general population. According to the CDC, 90 percent of people who try heroin have tried at least one other drug first, and, an astonishing 45 percent of heroin users were addicted to prescription opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, oxycodone, oxycontin, fentanyl, Dilaudid, and morphine before switching to heroin. In 2014, prescription opioids killed more than 28,000 of the 2,000,000 Americans dependent on them. From 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. nearly quadrupled.

With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.”

A May 2014 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains: “It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012 and an estimated 467,000 addicted to heroin. The consequences of this abuse have been devastating and are on the rise.”

Across Socioeconomic Divisions

While the Midwest currently sees fewer opiate overdoses than the coasts, that danger is growing across all socioeconomic segments of the population.

Janssen, Eynon, and several recovering addicts who spoke with Omaha Magazine on the condition of anonymity agreed that teens, the affluent, insured and educated are at risk—because when experimenting with opioid pills, youths often hold the false assumption that nothing bad can happen with drugs prescribed by a doctor, even if those pills were obtained without permission.

“They might steal them from a medicine cabinet or have their own prescription at some point,” Eynon says, echoing similar points made by the other counselors that middle-class white people with many relatives, each with several doctors, might find themselves practically surrounded by easily obtained and occasionally leftover prescriptions. “In my opinion, we will see a lot of West Omaha-type addicts. Prescription medication is usually attained through insurance coverage. In order to have insurance, you would need a job, which falls more into the ‘rich kid’ category.”

Sara B. comes from the less affluent segment of recovering addicts. A fast-talking 32-year-old with attention deficit disorder, also a mother of seven, she signed over the rights to her children to her counselor for their protection while she sought help. She is working hard in order to maintain a relationship with her children.

“I started because people around me, family members were doing it,” says Sara, who has been clean now for the better part of a decade. She still has to guard against relapse, maintaining sobriety for her children as well as her health. She is wary of family who are still actively using. “Which is hard because you have to stay away from users when you get clean if you want to stay clean,” she says. “It’s too easy to fall back.”

Justin Schwope is a 26-year-old recovering addict with four years of sobriety under Russell Janssen’s wing at Open Door. His habit of choice was a speedball, heroin and meth, though other stimulants can be substituted.

“I’d been messing with drugs since I was 16 and my grandparents died,” Schwope says. “I wasn’t able to get clean until I tried kill myself with Lipitor and woke up in Creighton three days later and then transferred to Lasting Hope.”

All sources interviewed by Omaha Magazine agreed that the transition from pure opiates to street junk is the greatest threat to the health and welfare of addicts. When the easy access to opiates runs out, addicts look elsewhere risking everything just to stay even, and even to get that high.

“In Maryland apparently, there was a mass supply of prescription drugs or ‘pill farms’ that were seized and, as a result, (users) turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easily available,” Eynon says. “They have an addiction to feed and, unfortunately, the heroin is not like prescription drugs which are regulated…and the pills are always consistent in strength and dose amounts. When they switch to heroin, they have no idea of the potency or what it might be laced with.”

Increased Regulatory Oversight

Tragic stories of opiate overdoses and abuse have become too commonplace.

After Omaha resident Carrie Howard suffered a severe car accident, she began taking prescription painkillers. The pills led to an addiction that culminated in a fatal overdose in 2009. The legacy of her untimely death made waves through Nebraska’s legislature. Carrie’s mother is former senator Gwen Howard; her sister is Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha.

The elder Howard championed legislation that created a prescription painkiller monitoring program in 2011. But the program fell short in many respects. Sara Howard continued the family’s fight for improved regulatory oversight of prescribed opiates when she introduced LB 471 to the state’s unicameral.

Upon receiving first-round approval in January 2016, several senators recounted their own families’ close encounters with opiate addiction. Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha revealed that one of his own relatives had suffered from a prescription painkiller addiction, an addiction sustained by shopping around different doctors and pharmacies. When the prescriptions dried up, Lindstrom’s relative turned to heroin.

The unicameral finally approved LB 471 in February 2016. It comes into effect in the new year. LB 471 will require pharmacies to report when prescriptions are filled, and would allow pharmacists to check records of past prescriptions to avoid abuse. There are two phases to this. Beginning January 1, 2017, all prescriptions of controlled substances will be reported to the prescription drug monitoring program. Beginning January 2018, all prescriptions will be reported.

A few weeks prior to Nebraska approving LB 471, President Barack Obama had announced that $1.1 billion would be made available for expanded opiate-related treatment opportunities across the country. According to a statement from the White House, “More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do in motor vehicle crashes.”

Already in the previous year, Nebraska received two significant grants to combat statewide opioid-related abuse: one for more than $3 million over four years from the CDC for prescription drug overdose prevention, the other for $500,000 over two years from the Department of Justice.

The funding comes at a pivotal moment. America is experiencing a perfect storm for an opioid epidemic. War, health care in crisis, addiction, easy access, and low employment are among the many factors forcing opioids into the drug user’s spotlight. Once, only the lowest drug users shot junk. Today, if not tomorrow, someone you love might be the next junkie you meet.

To get help for substance abuse problems, call: 1-800-662-HELP.

Additional reporting contributed by Doug Meigs.

For more information about the epidemic, as told by a recovering addict from suburban West Omaha, read: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/10/my-battle-with-opiates/ 

Russell Janssen, case manager at Open Door Mission.

Russell Janssen, case manager at Open Door Mission.

Bringing it Home

August 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hordes of the nation’s top triathletes will descend on Carter Lake this summer. They will compete for a national title at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships on Aug. 13-14.

Top finishers in the two-day event’s Olympic-Distance National Championship (Aug. 13) and the Sprint National Championship (Aug. 14) will be invited to join Team USA at the 2017 world championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Although the running, biking, and swimming events will revolve around Carter Lake, Omaha was the force behind the successful bid to host the event for 2016 and 2017. Triathletes will be reminded of Omaha’s national sports hub status as the running course turns around inside TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.

Coordination and collaboration of services among the Mayor’s Office; Fire, Police, and Public Works Departments; and other city infrastructure players were vital in landing this event—USA Triathlon’s largest and longest-running national championships event—as well as other major sporting events throughout the past decade.

This triathlon is expected to bring roughly 10,000 people and an estimated $10-12 million in hotel and food sales to metro Omaha during the weekend.

Triathlon1Race Omaha, which pitched Omaha as a future host site more than two years ago (when the event was celebrating year two of its three years in Milwaukee), has been the major coordinating force behind Omaha’s bid since the beginning.

Because of past and current events, USA Triathlon—which sponsors the championship—knew the metro area could more than support an event of this caliber. Those events include the College World Series, Olympic Swimming Trials, NCAA basketball, NCAA volleyball, and the U.S. Figure
Skating Championships.

“Because we’ve successfully brought in and held big events in the past, there was no doubt we could handle an event like U.S. Age Group National Championships,” says former Race Omaha Race Director Kurt Beisch. “We have this event this year and next year, and then USA Triathlon will decide where to take it next. We just want everyone coming to town for this event to have a great experience and learn what a great community we have here.”

The cooperation of city services was only one of many incentives that lured the triathlon and other events to the metro over the past decade (or in the case of the College World Series, since 1950).

According to USA Triathlon National Events Senior Manager Brian D’Amico, there were multiple factors that went into choosing Omaha over several other cities: geographic location, accommodations, and the history of hosting successful national sporting events.

But in his and USA Triathlon’s expert opinions, there is one intangible that drew them to Omaha: the people.

“We love Omaha’s central location in the United States, which makes it easily accessible from both coasts as well as the entire country,” D’Amico says. “We love that Carter Lake (site of the event headquarters and venue for the swimming leg of the triathlon) is so close to the airport, and the city has worked so hard to welcome us.

“But what we really noticed during our site visit was how friendly and welcoming everyone in Omaha is. We love how supportive the community has always been of the College World Series, Swim Trials, and other events. They really enjoy having visitors in town, and they go out of their way to make them feel welcome. That’s something you can’t measure or control, so it’s a definite advantage.”

The two-day event is divided into two race distances—Olympic on Saturday and sprint on Sunday. These distances both feature the traditional legs of a triathlon: a swim (at Carter Lake), followed by biking, and finally, a run through Omaha’s city streets, culminating with a turn at TD Ameritrade Park before returning to Carter Lake.

The Olympic portion features a 1,500-meter open water swim, followed by a 40K bike ride with a 10K run. Sunday’s sprint version is half the distance of all three legs.

Race Omaha founder Alan Kohll says whether you have attended or participated in previous triathlons, many things will help keep spectators and fans engaged—including an expo near the event headquarters.

As a perk, Oriental Trading Co. will hand out cowbells and thunder sticks to spectators who will motivate the athletes as they traverse through the course by water, bike, and foot. There will also be 5k and 1k runs on Friday night for everyone not participating in the triathlons.

Kohll says the triathlon events will definitely carry an Omaha flavor.

“We’re not attempting to mimic what’s been done in Milwaukee or past cities that hosted this event,” Kohll says. He and Beisch are both competitive triathletes.

“We want people from other parts of the country to leave Omaha having learned more about what makes the community special—the zoo, Berkshire Hathaway, and Omaha Steaks, among many others. These are some things Omaha is known for, and we want to emphasize them.”

Visit raceomaha.com for more information.

Why Not Omaha?

June 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Just as it has been for the past 65 years, Omaha—especially downtown—will be hopping this summer.

Since 1950, the city has been known as home base for the College World Series—first at Rosenblatt, and for the past five years at TD Ameritrade Park.

But throughout the past 10-plus years—largely since downtown welcomed the CenturyLink Center in 2003—events and entertainment opportunities have exploded.

During that time, Omaha has hosted two (soon to be three) Olympic Swim Trials for USA Swimming at the C-Link, bringing thousands of people from throughout the country to River City.

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Prior to their arrival, many swimmers, visitors, and family members think of Omaha as a cow town (seriously, some think cows literally walk the streets). But once they arrive and see the majesty and versatility of the arena, complemented by the restaurants, shops, and other activities within walking distance, they gain a new perspective about the city.

So what makes Omaha such a growing Mecca for events like the College World Series, Swim Trials, or USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships (coming to town this August)? Or first- and second-round NCAA men’s basketball games? Or the NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Championships last year and in past years?

Why Omaha instead of sports towns like San Antonio or St. Louis?

Maybe the better question is “Why not?”

“Omaha is the perfect host city for these kinds of events for several reasons, but the biggest reason is the people who live here,” says College World Series of Omaha Inc. Director of Marketing and Events Dan Morrissey. “People in the Omaha area embrace events like the College World Series and Olympic Trials even if they aren’t sports fans.

“During the CWS, there is always a small contingent of fans cheering for their teams, but TD Ameritrade Park seats 24,000—and the majority of spectators are from the area. They are there because they enjoy and support the event. It’s really a matter of pride for people in Omaha.”

Omaha is also considered a jewel for big-name events because of geographic location, ease of
traffic and transportation, and proximity to the airport, among other amenities.

But buildings like the Century Link Center and TD Ameritrade Park—versatile, state-of-the-art venues—have opened doors to top events that would have been too big or sophisticated for the Civic Auditorium to properly host.

After many years at Rosenblatt Stadium, the NCAA considered relocating the CWS to another city if the powers that be in Omaha didn’t upgrade to a bigger, better facility—one that was closer to the action in downtown. TD Ameritrade Park opened as the solution in 2011 and has been a tremendous draw for fans—local and not-so-local—ever since.

The city’s commitment to keeping the CWS in town has made it possible for millions of dollars in hotel room rentals, food, transportation, and entertainment sales to impact the business community.

“Downtown is really the heartbeat of the city, and when the CWS was at Rosenblatt, it was very isolated from everything else that was happening in the growing downtown,” Morrissey says. “Moving the event to a new stadium within walking distance of restaurants, bars, shopping, and hotels greatly enhanced the overall experience. People love  coming to Omaha for the CWS.”

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People from coast to coast also have loved coming to attend the Olympic Swim Trials at the CenturyLink Center. The economic impact of the swim trials in 2012 was in the $30 million range, and this year’s trials—which has sold out almost every session and is welcoming a record number of athletes—could be around $40 million.

According to USA Swimming Assistant Executive Director Mike Unger, when USA Swimming was looking for a new spot to host the swim trials in 2008, a committee scouted several cities—and Omaha came out on top.

“We narrowed the search to two or three cities, and ultimately Omaha provided everything we needed and wanted to host a world-class event,” Unger said. “The versatility of the venue (CenturyLink Center) was a huge factor. Having a warm-down pool just steps away from the competition pool in an indoor facility is amazing.

“Very few arenas have that capability, and then having a 4-star hotel attached to the arena, and other hotels within walking distance of the arena, was a big selling point. Omaha has it all. We always feel very special when we come to Omaha.”

Another event calling Omaha home for several days this summer (and again in 2017) is the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. Centered around competition at Carter Lake (swimming), the Missouri River trails (biking) and TD Ameritrade Park (finish of the marathon), Omaha was a great fit for the triathlon after Milwaukee hosted the past three.

A big selling point for the event to come to Omaha was the proximity of the airport to Carter Lake, where the event will be headquartered, as well as the city’s central location–within a day’s driving distance or less for the majority of the competitors and their families. Plus, the city’s ability to host larger events like the CWS and the swim trials proved Omaha could handle an event of this scope.

“Omaha really knows how to roll out the red carpet for these kinds of events; everyone involved definitely knows what they’re doing,” said USA Triathlon National Events Senior Manager Brian D’Amico. “Hotels and restaurants are all within close proximity to the lake and, with upwards of 5,000 total athletes—not to mention families, friends, officials, etc.—we needed the availability of between 2,500 and 3,000 room nights for everyone. Omaha was able to provide that and then some.”

D’Amico also referenced the tremendous backing and support from city officials in USA Triathlon’s decision to hold its event—which is expected to contribute between $11 and $12 million to city and business coffers—in Omaha.

“We received letters of support from the mayor, local sports commission, police, and other city departments committing their support to us and our athletes,” he said. “We need to have roads completely blocked off for the marathon section of the triathlon, and that takes full city support. Omaha brings that.”

Omahan Susie Sisson, who recently bought tickets for the July 1 session of this year’s Olympic Swim Trials and has attended the past two trials at the Centurylink Center, says the reason to choose Omaha begins and ends with the people and their enthusiasm for sporting events.

“People here love sports, especially amateur sports, and will buy tickets, even if they don’t know much about that particular sport,” said Sisson, a teacher at Marian High School. “These types of events always seem to be sold out, or nearly sold out, and I think that’s because people here love to feel like they’re participating in something important and exciting.

“On a practical level, the city also has a built-in infrastructure of hotels, convention space, restaurants, and tourist attractions. It’s easy for organizers and fans alike to feel welcomed and accommodated.”  Encounter

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Searching for Simpatico

July 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appeared in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The waters of Lake Manawa are dead still. It’s 5:30 a.m. and nearly 50 young women are about to disturb the pristine, glass-like surface. They are the Creighton University rowing team and part of a small but active rowing community in Omaha.

Ray Griggs serves as boatman for the Creighton team and is a master rower with Omaha Rowing Association (ORA), which boasts about 40 members. He talks about rowing as though born with an oar in hand, yet he never rowed before age 18. Griggs’ introduction came in 1976 upon joining the Naval Academy, where participating in sports is required.

“I got a postcard from the rowing coach,” Griggs says. “I tried to walk on to the football team. After two weeks, I was cut, at which point I immediately ran to the boathouse. I ran up to whoever looked like he was in charge and he says, ‘OK, get in a boat.’”

Rowers frequently exude that same “join us,” attitude.

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“Are you coming to see us Saturday?” asks Creighton assistant coach Catherine Saarela-Irvin with a grin. The team was hosting a regional competition at Carter Lake that coming weekend. It was a rare chance to see rowing locally. The Creighton team travels as far away as Dallas to compete.

Saarela-Irvin also rows at a master’s level with ORA, where she coaches kids age 12 to 18. The ORA often competes in the Master’s National, which this year will be held in Camden, New Jersey.

The welcoming spirit comes from a total team sport that creates lifelong bonds. Ninety percent of the Creighton team never participated in the sport before college. Many plan to row as long as they can, joining club teams such as ORA.

“I’ve picked it up anywhere I go,” says Saarela-Irvin. “I’ve rowed in New Hampshire, San Diego, and now Omaha.”

“It isn’t a sport for someone who wants to stand out,” Griggs explains. “You have to do exactly what everyone else does, when everyone else does.”

Rowing involves synchronous movement of the arms, legs, and cores of the body. Rowers cannot see where they are headed. In eight-person boats, and sometimes in four-person boats, a coxswain (pronounced cox-sin) sits at the stern and calls commands; without a coxswain, the rower at the bow steers and commands so the boat glides in the proper direction.

It’s a quiet, serene sport, even though the physicality of it demands a grueling combination of strength and endurance. Only the person steering speaks, and the silent rowers enter their own private worlds as they pull and push the boat through the water in a zen-like cadence.

They collectively hope for “swing”, that precise moment when perfect synchronicity is achieved and the group moves as one.

“We call it the magical row,” Griggs says.

“You’ve got this simpatico thing happening,” adds Saarela-Irvin. “It’s really neat…kind of like flying on the water.”

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