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In the wake of world championships, the Dragon Boat Festival returns
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Dragon boats are prepared to be raced in during the Annual Dragon Boat Challenge at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Austin Steele

The Lake Lake Lanier Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is back and it’s ready to grace the waters of Lake Lanier with the ornate boats that have a rich history around the world.

The festival will bring thousands of competitors and spectators to Lake Lanier Olympic Park Saturday, Sept. 7, for a free, all-day event on the water.

Lake Lanier Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival

What: Festival including dragon boat races

When: 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7

Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Park, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville

How much: Free

More info: www.dragonboatatlanta.com

“It's very exciting,” said Tracy Barth, deputy festival director. “This has always been my favorite event for the community, especially at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park.”

The festival has been held in Gainesville at the Olympic venue since the early 2000s, bringing a cultural experience that isn’t normally found in Hall County. Opening ceremonies at the event will include presentations and dances from Asian culture. Dragon boats will be paddled in races across the water. There will be music and food representing the culture to go along with the event.

“If you drive down Pleasant Hill Boulevard and down Highway 13 heading down toward Atlanta, you get a real taste of what happens at this event,” said Jim O’Dell, head coach and director of practice for the event. “If anybody wants to experience Asian culture in a microscopic fashion all in one place, this is it.”

While the event is competitive, it’s also meant to be fun and educational. O’Dell said he remembers about 10 years ago when a team came from New York with hopes of beating the team the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club was fielding. The canoe and kayak club ended up winning.

“There are some serious teams that come from out of town,” O’Dell said. “You get those kind of teams who come down and take it very seriously, but then there's some that I'd say are less than weekend warriors, coming out trying to make a go of it for their company or their community.”

The Lake Lanier Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is about the team coaches nearly as much as it is about the teams that come to compete. Coaches are all Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club members who represented Team USA last year at the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships.

Over the years, O’Dell said the club has put in “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours” to make the event such a success.

“We've always put on an excellent event as LCKC,” O’Dell said. “It goes back to having excellent water, a great facility and the focus being on Hong Kong. I think people want to experience that Asian culture. There's a lot of spectators who have no skin in the game.”

Those spectators still come out and watch because of the immersive experience

“To have something where thousands of competitors and spectators come together and cheer on their favorite teams and witness different cultural events and indulge in different cuisines, I think it's just a premier cultural event that makes it a success,” Barth said. “It's so diverse and it's something we don't really see, especially in North Georgia.”

The event will include teams mostly coming from corporations all around the Atlanta area, as well as teams from universities and teams of friends. All together, there are a record 81 teams competing this year, mostly from Georgia with a few from North and South Carolina.

O’Dell said he’s watched the event grow over the years and is excited for it to get underway again. His favorite part is watching people come back year after year, more excited each time they get a chance to paddle. Some of those who came out for fun their first time turn the fun into real competition.

“It's always good to see smiles on people’s faces when they come off the dock,” O’Dell said. “And there are those individuals who have been doing this for a couple of years and they'll either email me or call me and say, ‘I want to go (further) with this.’”

He said there are a handful of people over the last decade who have world championship medals now and if the the festival continues, he’s sure he’ll see plenty more.

“That’s pretty cool,” O’Dell said.

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