When Team USA won the Nations Cup at the 2018 ICF World Dragon Boat Championships back in September, local coach Jim O’Dell was ecstatic.
After all, he had been a key part in organizing the event that brought in teams from 14 countries to the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue and one of the people behind training the U.S. athletes. And following the event, at a volunteer appreciation dinner, Gainesville-Hall ‘96 presented O’Dell with a dragon boat of his own.
“It’s so hard to put it into words, because when you volunteer to do stuff like that, you do it without regard for accolades, without regard for ‘atta boys,’” said O’Dell, who served as the regional coach for the U.S. team. “You do it because of a passion. And to have something like that … it means so much. And now I have another tool at the club to do more training in; it’s just amazing.”
Local paddlers who train with O’Dell made a world of difference at the championships earlier this year: Almost 30 members of Gainesville’s Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club qualified for Team U.S.A. during the world championships. Of those, 15 were from Gainesville.
And to mark the coach’s impact on the event and the team, his name printed on the side: “Coach Jim O’Dell.”
He wasn’t overly concerned about the name on the side of the boat or that it was donated in his honor, though. O’Dell said he doesn’t like talking about himself that much.
He’s grateful and appreciative for what the donation means, but he was just happy to have another dragon boat for the paddlers to practice in.
The boat came as a “total surprise” to O’Dell. He said it left him “speechless for a few seconds” when it was presented to him at the dinner. Most people there didn’t know it was happening, but Jackie Hutton said it’s something everyone agrees O’Dell deserves.
“It really shows the appreciation and respect that coach Jim deserves,” said Hutton, office administrator with Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. “It’s nice to be able to be recognize him for his hard work and dedication into the dragon boat program.”
And the donation wasn’t a small one — each dragon boat cost more than $5,000.
“It just further exemplifies how everybody in the community feels about his contribution,” Hutton said.
When the season gets underway again, O’Dell will get to see that boat out on the lake, gliding across the water as his paddlers work to bring home more medals and trophies. And for him, that will be a surreal feeling, or in his own words: “It’s extremely humbling.”
“I mean, it still chokes me up a little bit just thinking about it,” O’Dell said.
“It’s funny because some of my kids at the club, I told them a while back — somebody was having a memorial service there at the park — so I jokingly told the kids, ‘When I die, I want you guys to find an old 10-foot boat, fill it up with combustibles, throw me out in the lake and somebody shoot an arrow, like a viking funeral.’ And I said, ‘Now I’ve got the boat.’”
He said he’s received countless kind words from athletes and parents. But again, that’s not why he does what he does. He said that even though it sounds cliche, he has a passion for the sport and a passion for the athletes, so he shows up every day for them.
“You do it because you love it,” O’Dell said.
Anything that comes after that is just an added bonus.
“And if you volunteer like that, good things happen,” O’Dell said. “And this is an amazing, good thing. And it’s such an honor to be a part of such a great community.”