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Team USA claims top trophy as Dragon Boat Championships ends
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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

Smiles were all around as Jim O’Dell hoisted the Nations Cup among teammates at Lake Lanier Olympic Park Sunday, Sept. 16.

For O’Dell, it was especially sweet grabbing the cup, which signifies the highest points total at the 2018 International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships.

“This is a program on the rebound,” said O’Dell, United States regional dragon boat coach. “After Moscow two years ago, nobody — these other nations have talked with me — expected us to do this well.”

Team USA shared the closing ceremonies platform with Germany and the Czech Republic as the prestigious event came to a close Sunday. The competition began Wednesday, Sept. 12.

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Team USA dragon boat member Brittany Blundetto, of Philadelphia, holds the Nations Cup awarded to the team Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park during the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships closing ceremony. - photo by Scott Rogers

An occasionally steady rain didn’t mar festivities, as countries cheered each other during award presentations.

As the U.S. won the top trophy, athletes and other spectators shouted, “USA! USA!”

“We are extremely proud of all our coaches and all our athletes,” O’Dell said. “They just did a phenomenal job.”

Robyn Lynch, Olympic Park venue manager, was beaming after the event, which involved heavy planning and preparations.

“It’s been such a great experience,” and to have Team USA come out on top “was even better,” she said. “What a bonus.”

Lynch said she has gotten positive feedback from the visiting countries.

“They thought the event was so well organized,” she said. “They loved it here and want to come back.”

Teams from 14 countries raced in dragon boats, which are similar to canoes but longer, seating 12 or 22 people, and in various age groups — Junior, Senior and Master, 40-plus and 50-plus.

Team USA had 112 athletes, with 29 coming from Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. Other Team USA athletes hailed from all over the country, including Arizona, Texas and North Carolina.

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Team USA members Ha Nguyen, left, and Heather Mercado take a selfie together Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, at Lake Lanier Olympic Park during the closing ceremony of the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships. - photo by Scott Rogers

One of those was Heather Mercado, a paddler from Texas.

“It’s a beautiful (venue) and a great course,” she said, after winning a medal.

Even though athletes seemed to fill the stands overlooking Lake Lanier, the event drew some curious spectators, including Helen Weathers, who drove in with her family from South Fulton County.

“We like to embrace anything in the community,” she said. “This has been wonderful. My daughter wants to know how to get into it.”

The youth movement helped lift Team USA to victory, O’Dell said.

“I honestly think our juniors made a huge impact on this,” he said.

O’Dell quickly dismissed the term “up and comers” to describe them.

“They’re here,” he said, with a laugh.

The World Championships rotate among different cities every two years, with Gainesville the first stop in North America. The 2020 event will be held in India.

As for Lynch, she’s busy preparing for other events. The Beginning Racing League will hold its Fall Fungatta at the venue Sept. 29.

“There’s not a chance to take a break quite yet,” she said.

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