When the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships commence on Lake Lanier next week, competitors will be flocking to Gainesville for the first time. Teams will come in from all over, including the United States and Canada, as well as China, India and even New Zealand.
But a good portion of the American team won’t have very far to travel at all.
Twenty nine members of Gainesville’s Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club (LCKC) have qualified for Team U.S.A. Of those 29, 15 are native to Gainesville itself.
“I think it was definitely crazy that we had this many people come from LCKC,” said Aaron Dickson, one of the American team competitors from Gainesville. “I don’t know that we expected this many people making the team from LCKC, but I think it’s definitely good that we train here. We have a good advantage for what’s coming up with worlds and everything, being on our water.”
As Dickson explains, “all water is different,” and racing on the lake he and his fellow LCKC members learned to paddle on gives him and the others a leg up on the competition.
Some of the team members even had an opportunity to test those waters at the current conditions at the Hong Kong Dragon Boat festival on Saturday, where LCKC raced two boats under the team name LCKC Super Dragons.
Alec Wilson, another member for LCKC and hailing from Gainesville, said the advantages go beyond just the physical. Wilson said he and the other local competitors will have a distinct mental edge come race day.
“We’re going to sleep in our own beds,” he said. “That’s something that a lot of people don’t think about, but being able to just be at home while competing helps your mindset.”
Wilson — a North Hall High student who will paddle for the junior team — added that the local setting will take away the stress of having to keep up with school work from a remote location, allowing him to stay focused on racing while in the water.
The LCKC members of the national team will also carry the advantage an already built-up level of camaraderie that is crucial to their success. Dragon boat racing — as Anna Crawford, another Gainesville native who is a part of team U.S.A, explained — is a team sport.
With many members of the team coming in from all over the country for the event, it can be hard to build chemistry in just a few practices. That won’t be an issue for the 29 LCKC members who already have a long history of canoeing, kayaking and dragon boating together.
“Most of us grew up together,” Crawford said. “So we’ve been paddling together since we were like 10-years-old, and we’ve all become just really good friends.”
Wilson said the event is even bringing back a few LCKC members who had branched out over the years, leaving Gainesville for school, work or other reasons. Welcoming back old friends is one of the main things he’s looking forward to with the coming competition.
“We’re definitely a little family,” Wilson said of the LCKC community.
Wilson, Crawford and Dickson all added that they’re looking forward to putting the United States — and Gainesville specifically — on the map in the international dragon boat scene. This year’s competition brings the championships to the U.S. for the first time in its history.
Dickson said he thinks Gainesville will provide a good first impression on the foreign visitors, some of whom will be visiting the states for the first time ever.
“Everyone is pretty nice around here,” Dickson said with a laugh. “Southern hospitality.”
But the Team U.S.A. members, particularly the local ones, will hope to be a little bit less nice when they finally get in the boat on race day.
The U.S. national dragon boat team has not had a great deal of success in international competition thus far. But with the biggest event of the year finally on home turf, the competing members of LCKC — who will be paddling on the same waters they’ve trained a portion of their lives on — hope that will change.
“It’s really scary but exciting to kind of show other nations that we are a threat, almost,” Wilson said. “We are competitors. We have a stake in this competition. You can’t just throw us off to the side. And since we are hosting it this year, we have more of a chance than ever to show that.”
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