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Freeport’s annual Great Canoe Race attracts dozens of paddlers

Camila Bella of Florence, N.J., and her husband

Camila Bella of Florence, N.J., and her husband Chris race in a canoe as the Freeport Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Police Athletic League hosts the village's yearly canoe race at Cow Meadow Park and Preserve, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Credit: Steve PFost

Jack Connell began Freeport’s Great Canoe Race hoping not to capsize.

The annual event, which began in the 1970s, kicked off Sunday morning as dozens of amateur canoers tested their skills on the Freeport Creek near Cow Meadow Park and Preserve.

“I’m psyched, ready to row,” said Connell, 59, a first-time participant who traveled from Stratford, Connecticut, to row with his sister-in-law, Bridget Connell, 55, also of Stratford, who came in second place in last year’s competition.

The Connells and at least 100 participants from New York State, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Long Island flocked to Freeport to join the races. The event featured multiple heats throughout the day, open to any team of two. Seven to 10 boats with 14 to 20 rowers among them participated in each race, guided along a water route by boats and buoys in the creek. The first three teams to reach land in each heat won medals.

The last time Connell rowed, he flipped his boat in the Connecticut River. In Freeport, he hoped to not only stay afloat, but outperform the Olympic canoers, who competed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday.

“It’s not Rio, but we hope to beat their best times,” said Connell, who did not win his heat but managed to stay upright in his race, jokingly.

The Freeport Chamber of Commerce, the Freeport Police Athletic League and the Village of Freeport jointly sponsored the event, which was interrupted in 2013 in the wake of superstorm Sandy in October 2012, and damage along the Nautical Mile, where the race had been held.

Volunteers from the chamber, the village and the police athletic league, as well as the Coast Guard, Freeport fire department and National Ski Patrol, helped manage the races and ensure participants’ safety.

The race brings the community together and engages local youth in an activity they might be unfamiliar with, said Bobby Ford, executive director of the police athletic league.

“They’re bridge-building between genders, between cultures,” he said. “It’s a moment for the community to get together and really just be human.”

Marianne Endo, a Freeport native who has overseen the competition for more than 20 years, waved green and checkered flags to signal the beginning and end of each race, respectively, and awarded each winner their medal. She said the canoe race helps highlight the village’s waterfront.

“We’re surrounded by water,” Endo said. “People really should be enjoying it.”

The police athletic league gave her an award for excellence Sunday to recognize her years of volunteering.

The more than $300 raised by donations and registration fees covers canoe rentals and permits for the next year, Ford said.

The event also serves to recognize Long Island’s Native-American heritage, said Mayor Robert Kennedy.

“It’s a great support for the community,” said Jennifer Jerome, 54, of Freeport, who came in third in the first race. “I’ll be back every year.”

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