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Fall dragon boat championships to draw hundreds to Lanier Olympic Park
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The ICF Dragon Boat World Championships came to Lake Lanier in September, the first time it's ever been held in the United States. The competition included more than 1,000 athletes from a dozen countries. - photo by Scott Rogers

Russia, Hong Kong, Poland: After competing in world championships around the globe, the United States’ dragon boat team is staying home this year because the competition is coming to them.

For the first time in its history, the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships is being held in the United States, and it’s coming to the Lake Lanier Olympic Park.

IFC Dragon Boat World Championships

When: Sept. 12-16

Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Park

More info:

It’s an enormous occasion for the park and for Gainesville, Olympic Park manager Robyn Lynch said last week. Olympic-level athletes, coaches, family and friends will fly into Georgia this September in what will be a $5 million shot in the arm of the local economy, according to Lynch.

More than 1,000 athletes will swarm Olympic Park from Sept. 9, when practice begins for all teams on the lake, to the Sept. 16 closing ceremonies, according to the ICF calendar of events.

Jim O’Dell, a local canoe and kayaking coach who is also a regional coach for Team USA in the ICF championships, said more than 20 nations are expected to sign up for the championships.

So far, 15 countries are confirmed, according to Lynch: Armenia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ghana, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Ukraine, U.S. and Russia.

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A Team USA dragon boat sits outside of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club boathouse Friday, April 13, 2018. Jim O'Dell is one of Team USA coaches taking part in the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships that will be coming to Lake Lanier in September. It will be the first time the event has been held in the United States and will include more than 1,000 athletes from a dozen countries. - photo by Scott Rogers
Just those 15 teams are bringing 677 people, including 587 athletes, to the championship. That figure doesn’t include family and fans traveling to see the sport, which based on number of fans is the second most popular sport in the world outpaced only by soccer.

It’s gaining a foothold in the United States, O’Dell said Friday, as hundreds of teams are cropping up along the coasts as enthusiasm grows for the sport.

“It’s the battle. It’s competition,” said O’Dell, who has coached dragon boating since the 2000s and has been involved at the national level beginning in 2009. “It’s being part of something greater than yourself.”

O’Dell is now the chairman of Dragon Boat USA, a national organizing committee for the dragon boat team within the American Canoe Association. He’s involved with the local committee working with Lynch to organize the world championships at Lake Lanier.

Dragon boat competitions usually occur as a festival. Georgia’s event is the Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, held each year at Olympic Park. The 2018 festival will immediately precede the world championships.

Dragon boating has pedigree, too. While its not yet an Olympic sport (O’Dell is keeping his fingers crossed that changes in 2024) the ICF championships are a feeder event for Olympic canoeing and kayaking teams.

And the championships put on an Olympic-level show. Lake Lanier is in for a treat come September.

“In 2014, Team USA ... took 110 people to Poland,” said Laurie Moore, a tech-industry employee in Atlanta and dragon boat competitor trying out for Team USA this year. “You felt — it was so exciting. Even though it wasn’t the Olympics, that’s the caliber. The opening ceremony, the whole awards ceremony, the closing ceremony, it was run as if you were in the Olympics.”

And among dragon boat teams, Lake Lanier and its athletes are serious competitors. Moore has medaled in previous world championships, and she’s not alone among Georgia athletes.

The quality of Lake Lanier paddlers is what got O’Dell involved with Team USA in the first place.

“There’s a team from New York that came down in 2008 (for our festival) with the specific goal of beating us, and we beat them,” O’Dell said. “They were a feeder team for Team USA, so the head coach found out about that and came down in late 2009 to see what we’re doing.”

Working with Team USA, O’Dell and other coaches have put together grueling tryouts that will through the summer narrow the field of athletes ready to compete in the various age and gender divisions for the world championships.

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Jim O'Dell is one of Team USA coaches taking part in the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships that will be coming to Lake Lanier in September. It will be the first time the event has been held in the United States and will include more than 1,000 athletes from a dozen countries. - photo by Scott Rogers
Moore said tryouts with Team USA head coach Michael Blundetto and O’Dell are intimidating, frustrating and thorough in the extreme.

“Tryouts consist of three days of intense, intense work,” Moore said, laughing.

Athletes are put under the microscope, from video of paddling runs to a “data paddle,” a smart paddle that records as much data as possible during training to track how an athlete is performing under pressure.

“It’s very intimidating. The coach is sitting on the bench in front of you turned and facing you,” Moore said. “You have some people getting the boat moving for you, and he hands you the data paddle and says, ‘Go.’”

And athletes will go and go, over and over, for days this summer at Lake Lanier and lakes around the country as Team USA breaks down and rebuilds the athletes it intends to field this September — athletes who can be as young as 15 or older than 50.

“We put them through the ringer first,” O’Dell said. “We start the trials on a Friday afternoon, working pretty hard Friday afternoon. Saturday afternoon, (we’re) working pretty hard. We start testing Saturday afternoon. Why? Because at the end of the day, when finals are, you’re beat up. We want to test you to see how much endurance you have.”

About 180 athletes will be invited to the team camp at Lake Lanier in late July. The pool will be narrowed to 100 or 120.

Those 100 men and women will be up against a wide range of amateur and professional athletes, to Russians who fill their teams with Olympians (and remain embroiled in a national Olympic doping scandal) to the Filipino dragon boaters who are sailors in the Philippine navy and train all day, every day in their sport.

And they can hang.

“In 2014, we had 11 people from Lanier who went to Poland for world championships,” O’Dell said. “It’s those kinds of opportunities we have here to springboard off of our sprint training and hopefully get some hardware around our necks on home water.”

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