Team USA won the top award this September in a lesser-known paddle sport competition in North America: the Dragon Boat World Championships. Arguably a bigger winner was Lake Lanier Olympic Park in Gainesville, Georgia, which brought back memories of hosting the 1996 Olympics to the region.
Dragon boat racing is more popular in pockets of the United States along the coastline, such as southern California and Florida. The paddle sport involves teams of 10 or 20 athletes, who race 45-feet dragon boats. The World Championship is held every two years, with this year’s being the first ever held in North America. As a result, it’s not widely know how commonplace the racing worldwide.
“Being the second most popular participation sport in the world, behind soccer, it obviously has a huge following of around 90 million people a year,” says Jim O’Dell, regional and junior national coach and chairman of Dragon Boat USA, of the sport.
Bringing the World Championships to North America was an exciting event for both O’Dell and Robyn Lynch, venue manager of Lake Lanier Olympic Park. Gainesville was selected as the venue in 2015, giving Lynch and her team three years to prepare for the event, which featured athletes from 14 different countries.
That preparation involved everything from finding accommodations and transportation for close to 1,000 athletes, to securing entertainment for the festivities–Elton John and Journey cover bands proved to be big hits—to purchasing a brand-new fleet of 38 dragon boats for all of the teams.
“It was our largest expense of the entire competition,” Lynch says. “There are none made in the United States, so we had to purchase them from China and have them shipped here … It was for the entire competition. Nobody brought their [own] boats.”
All 38 boats have since been sold to teams in the United States and Canada.
The championship brought in many local spectators, and Lynch says that while her team is still calculating the economic impact of the event, the preliminary estimate is $3 million.
After the 2016 Championship in Moscow, which O’Dell calls an “embarrassment” for Team USA, O’Dell retooled a lot of the organization’s operating procedures.
For the first time in the program’s history, the full team wasn’t selected until July—just two months before the Championship. O’Dell says this technique was to prevent complacency in athletes selected 10 months in advance of the games, which is one of the factors that led to a disappointing performance in 2016.
Team USA, which included 29 participants from the local Gainesville area, only had about three days before the World Championship to be on the water together.
O’Dell says the win at Lake Lanier has energized his team to search for more competitions, such as the 2019 Club Crew World Championship in Ukraine.
“Most all of them are saying ‘Where are we going to go next to race dragon boats,’ because they love being together,” O’Dell says. “Now there’s just so much energy that our canoe club is also saying, ‘We need to really explore and embrace dragon boating in a much bigger way.’”