It wasn’t much more than a year ago that 21-year-old Anna Crawford first decided to try out a dragon boat.
“I was just hanging around the boat house at practice one day and I decided to try it out,” she said. “I had also seen one four or five years ago and thought I might play around in it, but I didn’t think I could go to Italy.”
Now Crawford, who has raced flatwater sprint canoes for 10 years, is one of five athletes from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club headed to Milan, Italy later this summer to compete for the US National Team at the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships from Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
Team USA, which surprised fellow competitors with a fourth place finish two years ago in Hungary, is now one of the favorites.
And at the LCKC, dragon boat racing is starting to show its popularity.
Although, it’s not a surprise that the club is a good place to find potential dragon boat racers. The site of canoe and kayak events during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games is already home to world-class canoe and kayakers, in addition to being the host site for the annual Atlanta Dragon Boat Festival, which has grown into a popular event with more than 50 teams and 5,000 spectators, according to the official website.
The sport, which originated in China, is over 2,000 years old. The modern era of dragon boat racing, Dragon Boat USA chairman Jim O’Dell said, began in 1976, when Hong Kong introduced the world’s first international races. Since then, races have sprouted up all over, including on Lake Lanier.
“Dragon boating for the longest time was something we had to do every September for the festival,” said O’Dell, a member of LCKC. “It was 2 1/2 years ago we started getting involved at Lanier, and four of us traveled to Hungary, kind of catapulting off what we do at the Olympic venue with kayaking.”
O’Dell was one of the competitors for the surprising team in Hungary. He isn’t able to go to Italy this time, but he has been at the forefront of the club’s new focus on dragon boating.
“What is changed is we have a few people at Lanier who are taking dragon boat more seriously,” he said. “We have a new fleet of boats and people have bought their own. People are taking it more seriously.”
There are already a large amount of world-class athletes at LCKC. Now more of them are taking an interest in dragon boat racing, which is a good development for the national team.
O’Dell remembered when current US coach Mike Blundetto first came to LCKC.
“The first time that coach Mike came to Lanier, he was in awe of how our kids perform at Lanier, because they’re all pretty much training for the Olympics,” O’Dell said.
Now a few of those athletes will be powering the dragon boats of Team USA.
There are two types of dragon boats: A 10-seat and 20-seat boats. Each includes a paddler for each seat, a drummer and a steerer. Competition races includes men’s, women’s and mixed events for a number of age groups.
Ethan Jackson, at 19 years old, is the youngest member of the LCKC contingent headed to Italy. Like O’Dell, Jackson started out kayaking. With college looming, Jackson felt that he didn’t have the time to commit to kayaking at the top level anymore, but he would be able to continue to race dragon boats, something he has been doing the last four years.
He decided to stick with the sport after getting to compete at Disney World in a tournament.
“I had a blast and decided to stick with it,” Jackson said.
Having a musical background, he said that finding the correct rhythm from the drum, key to making the boat run smooth, didn’t take him too long to master.
The big difference between dragon boat and kayak, he added, is that as one of 10 or 20 paddlers, the sole focus is on getting all your strength into the strokes, instead of worrying about keeping a kayak balanced.
O’Dell has seen that worked in the sport’s favor.
“There’s an excitement for the kids because they can go so much faster in a dragon boat than in a kayak,” he said.
At nationals, O’Dell said the goal for the team will be 2 minutes in the 500-meter race. With the talent that this year’s team has assembled from all over the country, this US team won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
“Right now the goal is to get the US to the top of the podium,” he said of the 72-person team. “We have the top dragon boat paddlers from all over the US coming together.”
The five paddlers from the LCKC, Jackson, Crawford, Rich Stewart, Alejandro Schwedhelm, and Anne Blanchard, will play a big role on the team put together by Blundetto.
Crawford, who has already been to two canoe world championships but will be competing in her first big dragon boat race, is excited to get there.
“Given my background with sprint canoeing, it gets me excited,” she said. “I’m staying confident, but not overly confident.”