Driven by a love for rowing and paddling, Mike Knopp harbors a passion for bringing national and international sports to the Oklahoma River in his role as the executive director of the RIVERSPORT Foundation. After a successful career as a lawyer, Knopp switched lanes to establish the Oklahoma City University varsity rowing program and become the leader of the then Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation. Knopp’s initiatives and accomplishments at RIVERSPORT include establishing the first boathouse on the newly redeveloped Oklahoma River; developing the $10 million Devon Boathouse and OKC National High Performance Center project; and spearheading the Oklahoma Regatta Festival. Knopp resides in OKC with his wife, Tempe, and their three sons. We caught up with Knopp and got his thoughts on … 

RIVERSPORT’s core mission.

To inspire excellence, enhance communities and change lives through Olympic sports and outdoor urban adventures. We are driven to help leverage this incredibly unique and differentiating venue to help bolster outdoor culture in our community and really change lives. We see this as a lifestyle opportunity for people, grounded upon inspiration and authenticity.

… taking risks.

Anything that has the potential to be transformational comes with a degree of risk. I have grown more comfortable embracing risk through the years, and while it is never easy, I’ve learned that confidence comes through thorough preparation and a commitment to excellence, as hard as it can be, at every step of the way.

We made choices early on that were risky but paid off in substantial ways that helped bolster momentum, build public enthusiasm and provide a level of affirmation that became fuel for the next stages for our riverfront transformation vision. After all, many people thought it was somewhat of a crazy idea to promote the concept of what was a ditch becoming a world class rowing venue. I stepped out on a limb and hoped the international rowing world would embrace this happening in Oklahoma, and thankfully, they did.  An example was proclaiming we were going to host the USA Rowing World Challenge that would attract Olympic Teams from around the globe … before they were committed. This proved much more challenging than my naive mind believed at the time, but in the end, it worked out – with the Australian National Team head coach leaving OKC proclaiming this was one of the best venues and regattas he had attended.

… his career change. 

I was enthusiastic about my career path in the practice of law, but was equally intrigued by the opportunity to do something truly unique in a moment in time in OKC where my passion in water sports and the outdoors converged with the early staged of MAPS. While I was an assistant district attorney, I would voluntarily coach rowing before and after work with my wife, Tempe. I started the collegiate rowing clubs at OU and Oklahoma City University while she started our junior rowing programming. 

After sparking the imagination of Aubrey McClendon and other community leaders about what this river could mean for the future of OKC, a commitment was born to build an iconic boathouse. We firmly believed we needed to set a world class expectation from the outset with the first development on the Oklahoma River. Once the conservative idea of a simple boathouse turned into plans for the iconic Chesapeake Boathouse, the opportunity was presented to me to elevate the OCU rowing program to varsity status, and I knew it was the time to embrace the vision and make a bold move – from an attorney to a coach. I was fortunate to have the support of my wife and parents, believing that this was a moment for me to do something truly unique that could make special and timely impact during the formative years of the redevelopment of the Oklahoma River.

… his passion for rowing. 

I grew up on and around water on the lakes of Minnesota, and when dad was transferred to Washington, D.C., I was fortunate enough to go to middle school near Annapolis, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay. The frequent site of the oarsman and oarswoman rowing really hooked me – along with the vibrancy of the Potomac River. The synchrony of the athletes’ movements as they glided across the water was captivating to me and seemed like the ultimate team sport. I recaptured that enthusiasm as a freshman at Oklahoma State when I surprisingly saw a poster of an oarsman confidently holding an oar with the bold words, “Join Crew.” I went out on a cold February day to watch the OSU rowing team in action on Lake Carl Blackwall.  Despite the fact the conditions were not quite what recalled seeing while living in Maryland, and the equipment seemed nearly as old as the sport itself, I was instantly hooked, and the rest was history. 

… proudest accomplishments.

I am certainly proud of the fact that we have created something with our Oklahoma River that is truly differentiating for OKC and, I believe, has helped spark a contagious sense of pride throughout our community and a growing culture surrounding the outdoors and water sports.  Many people who are enjoying the Oklahoma River of today may not realize that less than 20 years ago the dream for a vibrant riverfront began with a shipping container boathouse on a dirt lot near the site of the Chesapeake Boathouse and adjacent to a blighted neighborhood with several abandoned lots.  Today this entire area has been transformed into the 120 acre Boathouse District through a unique public/private effort that I am fortunate to have helped lead. It was incredibly affirming when our programming has resulted in over 13 million in college scholarships to Oklahoma kids. It was also especially exciting we were able to secure the designation of the Oklahoma River as a US Olympic and Paralympic Training Site – the only river in the United States with such a designation.

Equally affirming is earning the attention of the outdoor industry as OKC was selected via RIVERSPORT as one of only four communities in the nation to receive the 3 year Thrive Outside grant designed to help infuse outdoor culture throughout the community. 

Personally, it is very special for Tempe and I to have watch the impact of the riverfront developments upon our own children. From sitting in the coaching boats as toddlers to now competing for the RIVERSPORT junior team at a national level with college opportunities, my kids are certainly a source of pride for us and it is very fulfilling to see how all the blood, sweat and tears that created this venue as they grew up is truly positively impacting their lives. It is also fun to see the entrepreneurial spirit pass to Keaton, my oldest son, who, with his best friend Owen, helped us develop the Basecamp Nature Center which has become a popular attraction at RIVERSPORT.

… his love of Oklahoma.

I have always said the people are the “x factor” that differentiates Oklahoma from everywhere else. While we certainly have a world class and urban venue unlike any other in the world, it is the way that we naturally treat our guests that was, I believe, a critical factor to our important formative years of putting the Oklahoma River on the map. The people are also the reason why a young guy like me (when I started this), with no real roots or connections in the community, was accepted for my big ideas and embraced. I don’t believe this would be the case in many other places! 

… OKC in 10 to 20 years. 

While so much has happened over the past 20 years, in many ways I feel we are just getting started. We have built important relationships that are leading to major opportunities, such as the ICF Super Cup occurring in August, which will bring the world’s top paddlers to OKC for our first-ever internationally televised event, and the first ever official event of its kind under the lights. The global exposure that will come from events like this will lead to exciting new opportunities in the future that will truly allow us to realize the vision of being one of the world’s premier urban aquatic venues.

Aubrey McClendon taught me to always look forward and ask yourself “What’s next?” I will continue to strive to advance the venue and our programming in new and exciting ways, and we are also excited to welcome our first commercial development to the Boathouse District with Bar K.  This will open up a wide array of new opportunities and momentum.  Most of all, I am excited to see how we can influence and ongoing generational change in our outdoor culture – and become a place that kids don’t want to leave (unlike mu high school friends in the early 90s) and people strive to get to.

… what he’s looking forward to.

I am really looking forward to seeing the different cultures mix and take hold in the Boathouse District – from our Olympic rowers and paddlers, to the cyclists and skaters who use our bike park, to the Oklahomans who have now come surfers with Surf OKC, and the skiers and snowboarders who now have a place to pursue their lifestyles with Ski OKC.

I believe all of this will make a long term impact upon our community and will help develop and exciting new set of leaders who will continue the natural passion and authenticity that made this project unique to OKC.  Of course – I am really excited to see how the experience of growing up around this amazing and crazy influences my kids as they pursue their individual interests and passions. 

… a big thank you. 

None of this would be possible without the steadfast commitment and support of my wife, Tempe, who is equally responsible for putting these unique opportunities for OKC in motion and supporting me through all the ups and downs along the way! Of course, I have also been very fortunate to surround myself with incredibly passionate and talented staff and amazing supporters through the years who have really made this dream come to life.