DAHLONEGA - On a typical Monday at 7 a.m., many college students are just beginning to stir and prepare for the day's classes. However, Ben Hefner of Gainesville, a senior majoring in physics at the University of North Georgia (UNG), is already on the water, training for a berth with Team USA as a flat water sprint canoeist for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Hefner, a graduate of North Hall High School, who recently took second place in the individual 200-meter sprint canoe and third place in the 1,000-meter at the U.S. National Team Trials in Oklahoma City, Okla., will graduate from UNG in spring 2014 and focus the next two years on training. He also took first place in the two-man 1,000-meter sprint canoe with partner Ian Ross.
"Ben is a top athlete; it's very tough to train and go to school, but he is very responsible," said Claudiu Cuir, Hefner's coach and a world champion canoeist from Romania. "He is very strong and can really move through the water. Ben is a little younger than most of his competition, but he has great potential and drive. He spends three months every summer training in Europe with some of my connections."
Hefner began paddling in 2005 on Lake Lanier at the age of 13 at the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club in Gainesville, where the 1996 Olympic events were held. The following year he won the national championship in the 500 meter and 1000 meter sprint for his age group.
"I could see that I had a future and set my eyes on making the national team," Hefner said. "In this sport, in order to be competitive at the world championships and to make the Olympic team, I have to compete internationally. My love for the sport and my commitment to excellence fuels my desire to compete."
That commitment includes much more than the early-morning paddles. Hefner follows-up his sunrise session with a one-hour weight circuit, a second paddle set at 10 a.m., and a third paddle set from 4 to 6 p.m. He runs in the evenings.
Though he plans to take time off for training and for the Olympics, Hefner plans to attend graduate school later to major in astrophysics or nuclear physics. His ultimate dream is to become an astronaut.
"Ben is very smart and a hard worker, and a member of the UNG Honors Program," said Dr. Richard Prior, head of UNG's Department of Physics and Hefner's academic advisor. "He does a really good job of handling his dual responsibilities as a student and an excellent athlete. Ben is a leader among our majors as president of the Society of Physics Students, and is well-liked by them and the faculty members. Besides being one of our best students, he also works as a lab assistant and tutor for introductory physics classes."