Sixteen years ago, Jim O’Dell was just working a regular job in occupational safety and health when he first discovered the 2,000-year-old sport of dragon boat racing.
Already a master’s paddler for the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club at the time, O’Dell initially saw the long piece of watercraft as an avenue for team building for his corporate position. From that discovery also came the benefit of general wellness. And from that, stirred an inspiration to build something bigger at the LCKC.
This year, he said, will be the fruits of all their labor.
O’Dell, the high-performance coach for LCKC, will see 29 local paddlers from the club compete for Team USA in the International Canoe Federation World Dragon Boat Championships in the coming days. With over 1,000 athletes from 16 countries competing, it will be the largest international event at Lake Lanier since the 1996 Olympics.
The championships are Sept. 12-16 as paddlers began practice on Sunday at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
“We’re making up about a quarter of our Team USA from right here in Gainesville. ...It’s just really exciting,” said O’Dell, also a regional coach for Team USA.
“This year, there have been some exciting stories of people who were festival paddlers 1 1/2 to 2 years ago, and now they’re on Team USA because they worked their rear ends off for the last 18 months to make the cut.”
The 58-year-old O’Dell was somewhat responsible for bringing this prestigious event to Gainesville for the first time, holding a leading position within the local organizing committee for the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships. This is the first time in the ICF’s history that these world championships will be held in the U.S.
Also, he has had a hand in transforming this local club into a national force over the years.
In 2009, O’Dell’s club went head-to-head against a team stacked with paddlers from the U.S. national team during the Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, where the LCKC beat them outright. At the time, it preserved LCKC’s five-year unbeaten streak at the festival.
“I just rallied up our kids, and it was exciting because we were not the fastest boat at the end of the first round of heats,” O’Dell recalled. “Second round of heats, we were just a little bit faster than them. And when it came around to the final, we cleaned them up.”
It captured the attention of U.S. national coach Mike Blundetto, who decided to fly down from New York to investigate. Blundetto was taken back by the quality facility that was Lake Lanier Olympic Park. It then sparked a lasting relationship between both coaches.
O’Dell’s involvement with Team USA moving forward — having Blundetto down to attend multiple camps at the LCKC — not only grew the number of locals competing at the international level with each passing year, it also led to 11 LCKC paddlers (youth and adult) be a part of Team USA winning the 2014 Dragon Boat World Championships in Poland.
“That to me, turned the corner because that was the year that we came back as World Champions (for the first time),” said O’Dell, now in his second stint as chairman for Dragon Boat USA.
It also cemented a new path for O’Dell, who just six weeks prior to Poland was “downsized” from his occupational safety position in Gainesville. He has since been devoted to coaching full-time, and immersed in the world of Dragon Boat.
Looking back, the life-altering event could not have come at a better time.
“I am where God wants me to be,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell is no stranger to the waterfront. A native of the west coast, O’Dell grew up around the long stretch of beaches in Santa Cruz, Calif. And in Gainesville, he took after his daughter in the sport of paddling in the early 2000s, winning several gold medals at the USA Canoe/Kayak Masters National Championships. His wife, Cathy, currently coaches Hall County Special Olympics program at the LCKC as well.
While O’Dell still dabbles in some part-time consulting, not even the highest paying gig will ever steer this coach away from his beloved sport.
“I work twice the hours for half the money, but I get twice the love out of it,” he said.
“It’s worth it seeing the smiles of people when they beat their personal bests, whether it’s in a canoe or kayak or when you’re a group of people in a dragon boat. The improvements are priceless.
“It touches me deeply when people are excited to train hard in this sport, working toward a goal.”
ICF Dragon Boat World Championships
Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Park, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville
Opening ceremonies: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, Olympic Park
Racing events: Sept. 13-16
Closing ceremonies: 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, the Smithgall Arts Center Lawn, 331 Spring St., Gainesville; tickets $20
How much: Parking at Lanier Olympic Park is $10, racing events and opening ceremonies are free
More info: lanierdragonboat2018.com