Over the weekend, 125 paddlers from across the US made a big splash at Lake Lanier Olympic Park with the hopes of landing a spot competing in the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships.
From Sept 12-16, teams from 16 countries will race for a spot on the podium in junior, senior and master divisions. Boats have either 10 or 20 seats, with paddlers sitting in twos side-by-side and use a single-bladed paddle. Each boat also has a drummer and a steerer, with everybody in the boat paddling to the rhythm of the drum.
With previous championships being held in Russia, Poland, Italy and Hungary, this year marks the first time the event will be held anywhere in the Americas.
Jim O’Dell, coach with the United States National Dragon Boat Team, Dragon Boat USA, has been hard at work training and watching the athletes to prepare for the final team selection.
“Other regions across the US are currently going through the same selection process that we’re doing now. About 110 paddlers total will make the final team,” he said. “We currently have paddlers here from everywhere, the farthest away being from Seattle, Washington.”
O’Dell explained that athletes will be selected based on their performance.
“This is honestly one of the best groups of paddlers I’ve seen in the past decade, so I have no doubt that there will be some medals won when the time comes. We video all of our practices and have coaches riding in separate boats on both sides of the dragon boats so that they can see every detail,” said O’Dell. “Right now we’re assessing the turns during the 2,000-meter race. Trying to turn feels like turning in semi-cured cement, but those turns are so important.”
He described the feeling of being out on the boats as very exhilarating, depending on the condition of the water.
“It’s also pretty edgy any day because these are some high-caliber athletes. Sometimes the athletes get a little carried away and paddle too fast, and one of the coaches will have to slow them down,” he said. “Ten-seaters are definitely more unstable compared to the 20-seater because they’re lighter. One even flipped over yesterday when a motorized boat went by racing across the water.”
The team ran into some issues with unloading the dragon boats when they arrived on Friday afternoon, but overcame them quickly.
“That night, all of us left our dinners on the tables to rush over and help. Seeing a dragon boat balancing on two tongs on a forklift is so scary — all you see are dollar signs. My fingernails are completely gone after that,” he said laughing. “Thankfully, our team manager took control, developed a plan, and we got them unloaded. We still have three more containers coming.”
O’Dell expressed his deepest gratitude to the city of Gainesville and Lake Lanier Olympic Park for all they have done for the team.
“They have absolutely opened their arms to us and are so accommodating. Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club has even provided lunch to us every day,” he said.
But he isn’t the only one excited.
Anne Blanchard, originally from Connecticut, has been competing with the Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club in Gainesville for a number of years and is trying out for the master division.
“This is such a huge deal because it’s the first time the championships have ever been held in the Americas. It’s such a good feeling knowing that you’re going to be competing in something like this on your own turf, and everyone is super proud,” she said. “It’s also super cool that an Olympic facility is still being used for its original purpose. There’s so much history here.”
Drew Deppe from Gainesville is trying out for the junior division.
“Team USA is going to have a lot of competition because Europe has some of the top athletes in the world,” he said. “The movements are so unnatural and it’s probably the most fun you’ll ever have while getting hurt, but there’s nothing that could even compare to the feeling you get when you’re in that boat.”