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Windsurfers race to Minnesota
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Contest promoters like to call Lake Okabena "the windiest lake in the U.S." Here a racer heads out for a practice run on the lake. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
In a rare visit to the Midwest, a national windsurfing contest is being held in Minnesota this week. Competitors in the U.S. Windsurfing National Championships will race around a set course on Lake Okabena in Worthington. It's one of the windiest places in the state. But organizers of the event say wind is only one of the reasons they choose southwest Minnesota.

Worthington, Minn. — A windsurfing rig looks like a surfboard with a sail planted in the middle. The racer stands on the board and and maneuvers the sail to catch the wind. In the hands of an expert, the result can be an efficient union of wind and water. "Basically when you're out on the water nothing can touch you," says Kieran Devanney. "It's an incredible feeling just being free like that. You're completely under your own power. You're dealing with nature but you have control over it. It's just complete escape."

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Image Windsurfer Kieran Devanney is from Oregon.

Devanney is from the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. He says it's the first time he's raced in the Midwest. That may be true for many competitors, since the U.S. Windsurfing National Championships have only been held in the Midwest once before. Usually the races are in ocean settings, like Corpus Christi, Hawaii or the West Coast.

U.S. Windsurfing Executive Director Christine Brooks says the ocean is great for racers, but not fans. The windsurfers are so far from shore it's difficult for spectators to follow the race. She says bringing the contest to Worthington gives it a cozy, down home feel.

"The Midwest had been neglected and there's a lot of windsurfers around here," Brooks says. "And we were really looking to bring the windsurfing to the Midwest and to bring them a high quality event and to just expose more people to the sport."

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Image Christine Brooks is with the U.S. Windsurfing Association

Brooks found what she was looking for on Worthington's Lake Okabena. A local group had staged a combination windsurfing and music weekend for several years. They were ready to move up a step with a big national contest. Bill Keitel of Worthington helped organize the windsurfing events on Lake Okabena.

"We had a weather forecaster that made the comment that Worthington was probably one of the windiest places in the United States, or at least in the Midwest," says Keitel. "And we pondered that a little bit, realizing that most people think the Fargo area is the windiest. And we realized that Fargo doesn't have a lake."

It seems like the wind is always blowing in southwest Minnesota. The state's wind energy industry is anchored here. From the contest site you can see wind turbines silhouetted on the western horizon. At Lake Okabena the race director will set up a new course daily to take advantage of that day's wind.

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Image Bill Keitel of Worthington helped organize the event.

"I was out sailing on a catamaran with a friend of mine," says spectator Mike Doeden. "We were going along at a pretty good clip. A guy on a sailboard sets up and takes off after us. And we're sitting there laughing at him. And all of a sudden we're not laughing anymore. He's going by us like we're standing still."

Windsurfing started almost half a century ago. But it only became a widespread recreational sport in the last two decades or so. But after an initial burst of popularity in the 1980s, participation slackened. Windsurfing officials hope events in cities like Worthington will help renew public interest in the sport.

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