United States regional dragon boat coach Jim O’Dell had never seen the national team perform to the level it did on Thursday at the prestigious ICF Dragon Boat World Championships.
His many paddlers from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club represented well, boosting the U.S. to a sweep of four events on Day 2 to take the podium as world champions. And the jubilation continued Friday, as Team USA raked in five more medals (gold, two silvers, two bronze) on Day 3 of the championships at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
“We’ve had a lot of podium finishes, which is very, very good. The competition, it’s just excellent,” said Jim O’Dell, also the high performance coach for LCKC.
Friday’s action was comprised of the 500 and 2,000 meter portion. The 20-seat senior women’s team took home the lone gold of the day for the U.S. with a win in the 500-meter race with a time of 2 minutes, 14.657 seconds, besting Canada by more than six seconds. The 20-seater Masters Men paddled to a silver-medal finish in the 500-meter race.
Meanwhile, the 10-seater senior mixed team (2:11.876) and 20-seater Masters 40-and-over mixed (9:36.528) earned bronze after what was one of many hard-fought, 2,000 meter marathons — juniors included — for the day.
For the 10-seater junior men, their silver-medal (9:34) finish was hard-earned after battling a stout group of paddlers from the Czech Republic.
First-time international competitor and junior Team USA paddler Alec Wilson could still hear those intimidating shouts and the beating drum from the Czech’s watercraft gradually become louder from behind.
“That 2K...Definitely the hardest we’ve ever gone together. There’s nothing more we could’ve done,” Wilson said of the race. “We were all pouring our heart and soul into that race, into our paddles.”
Fellow junior competitor and LCKC member Aaron Dickson said the Czechs handled the turns at a higher grade to eventually beat host Team USA by a two-second margin. He’s still confident in their chances for Day 4.
“The Czech Republic team has been so close to us on so many races,” said Dickson, a first-time paddler on the world stage next to Wilson. “It’s scaring us a little bit, but I know we’re gonna get them on the 200s (Saturday).”
O’Dell has especially taken enjoyment in seeing the camaraderie amongst a diverse Team USA to include his LCKC junior competitors. The longtime coach has even mixed a number of them in some senior division races already.
“It’s elevating their game — of course it’s gassing them a little bit too,” laughed O’Dell. “We had some of our juniors that raced three 2,000s today. That’s hard work. So did that cost us a gold versus a silver in the 2,000 meters? Maybe.
“But overall, if it helps the team, so be it.”
Dickson will be one of those few junior paddlers to have a hand in the 200-meter portion Saturday. He along with the experienced senior paddlers will give chase to the team representing the Philippines, which claimed two gold medals outright in the senior 500 meter portion Thursday. Behind the Philippines was Hungary, which edged Team USA for silver.
Dickson is certainly looking forward to the challenge.
“The Philippines’ senior team is very fast,” he said. “Their stroke grade and speed is just ridiculous. I hope we’ll be able to keep up, honestly.”
Aside from the stern competition, LCKC paddlers like Dickson and Wilson are soaking in their first international competition. One of Wilson’s favorite experiences has been his conversations with other national teams.
“You’re able to make friends with people across the globe ...The Switzerland team asked us certain customs here, like they didn’t know what a sausage biscuit was,” laughed Wilson. “The sportsmanship is obviously greatly appreciated. ..We try to be as humble as we can, and hope that other teams show that to us as well. That ultimately makes it a better racing experience.”
Seventeen-year-old Dickson, born and raised in Gainesville, still can’t believe his first Dragon Boat World Championships has essentially taken place in their own backyard.
“It’s kinda weird, taking it in,” he said. “But it’s at home. It’s right here. I mean, we go to the same stores every day, and we do all our workouts here.”
Team USA will brace for the next portion of races Saturday — 200 meters. The 200-meter finals and more 2,000 meter finals will commence Sunday, weather permitting.
O’Dell noted that its a tight race with Germany in overall points for the senior and masters paddlers.
“It’s gotta be close. ...I think Germany might be ahead of us a little bit for Nation’s Cup,” the coach said. “But we’re not done battling.”