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Jim O’Dell, who helped bring dragon boat races to Gainesville, bids Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club farewell
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Jim O'Dell poses for a portrait on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. O'Dell has been a big part in building a prominent program at Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club since the early 2000s. - photo by Austin Steele

Since before the turn of the century, Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club has held a prominent place in the heart of Executive Director Jim O’Dell. 

It started in the floating grandstands of Lake Lanier Olympic Park, where he and his daughter spectated the final rowing events of the 1996 Olympics.

Then, in 1999, O’Dell found himself spectating once again as his daughter became involved in what’s now LCKC’s Beginner Racing League.

Ever the curious person — a trait he owes to a background in human resources and occupational health and safety — his knowledge of the sport “steadily increased” and spurred him to become a volunteer BRL coach.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“I’ve been here ever since,” O’Dell said.

O’Dell has assumed several roles over the years, including high performance coach and program director, and was instrumental in bringing the 2018 Dragon Boats World Championships to Gainesville.

In 2020, he was named LCKC’s executive director, beginning a short and sweet stint that’s set to conclude July 9, as he returns to the realm of occupational health and safety.

He’ll be working with Marel in Gainesville, where he’ll coach 270 employees across three shifts.

“It’s a big change and it’s an entirely new industry for me to get involved with,” O’Dell said. “I’m looking forward to that learning curve … and just being that cheerleader for all those folks.”

In the wake of his impending departure, O’Dell says he has “absolutely no regrets at all.”

“Every moment here, good or sad or anything in between — how many people get to turn a hobby into a profession? It has been a true blessing.”

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Jim O'Dell, right, coaches athletes during practice on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, at Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club - photo by Austin Steele

O’Dell took over LCKC’s dragon boat program “in earnest” about 17 years ago to train its rowers for the Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Festival, where the club held a bit of a winning streak.

In 2009, O’Dell said he fielded a phone call from a national team coach who wanted to know the secrets to their near-untouchable success.

“A team of Team USA paddlers came down in 2009 for the sole purpose of beating LCKC, and we won,” O’Dell said.

The ensuing years found O’Dell involved with the club’s national team, which traveled to compete in Hungary in 2010, Italy in 2012, Poland in 2014 — from which they returned as world champions — and Moscow in 2016. 

In 2018, 30 LCKC members represented the U.S. on their home waters, nabbing numerous gold, silver and bronze medals in the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships hosted at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.

“That was when LCKC really got to shine,” O’Dell said.

Of all the dragon boat races the club has competed in, O’Dell said there have only been three in which LCKC did not bring home a win.

According to O’Dell, while many nonprofits sank amid the torrent of the pandemic, LCKC managed to stay afloat. Actually, the club’s growth surged in 2020, and has been riding the wave ever since.

Today, LCKC’s membership is 100 strong, with four new paddlers joining the ranks just this week.

“It is a very exciting time,” he said. “Everything that we’ve built, we’re seeing it flourish.”

As a coach and director, O’Dell attributes much of the club’s success to his HR and corporate team-building background.

“Learning how to train adults in industry transfers over very, very well to coaching paddle sports,” he said. “I’ve always learned to meet people at their level, and to explain things easy enough for a fourth grader to understand — that’s what I’ve tried to do here, whether it’s coaching high performance athletes or breast cancer survivors. If nothing else, I’ve learned that positive feedback will always get results. I am not a leader by fear.”

O’Dell plans to stay connected to LCKC, albeit to a lesser degree, potentially as a guest coach and/or dragon boat consultant, and will continue to work between the club, Lake Lanier Olympic Park and Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival to supply coaches.

“There’s no way I can just go away,” he said.

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United States regional dragon boat coach Jim O’Dell gestures to the crowd at Lake Lanier Olympic Park Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, as the USA is awarded the gold medal in the 10-seat Junior Mixed during the final medal ceremony of the 2018 ICF Dragon Boat World Championships. - photo by Scott Rogers