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Dec. 9, 2018
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Community unifies for successful Dragon Boat World Championship

By Jane Harrison
 
The Lake Lanier community forged another international bond last month in a sport that demands unity, rhythm and spirit. Local hospitality, organizational prowess, and world-renowned facilities merged in the successful hosting of the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championship Sept. 12-16.
 
The event at Lake Lanier Olympic Park brought in more than 1,000 athletes and support staff from 11 countries at the first ICF Dragon Boat World Championship in the Americas. Tourism officials estimated visitors from around the world boosted the local economy by an estimated $3 million, filling hotels, stores and restaurants across Gainesville-Hall County and into Gwinnett County.
 
“I’m most proud of the way the community came together, from the volunteers to businesses to the corporate sponsors,” said Robyn Lynch, LLOP Executive Director. She praised the organizing committee from Gainesville-Hall ’96 for securing team accommodations, transportation, and meals and running races on time while beaming with Southern hospitality.
 
German athletes toasting American craft beer at the opening ceremony expressed the wide-felt sentiment of camaraderie and celebration. “This is great fun with nice people all coming together … it’s like a big party for all the countries,” said Sabine Winkler. Teammate Elke Sudholt concurred.

When the grandstands erupted with joyous dancing to Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” played by a glitter-clad Craig A. Meyer, Sudholt knew the world championship on Lanier would be different. “Usually it’s very straight and serious … this is fun!” she said.
 
ICF Vice-President Thomas Konietzko commended the “excellent preparations” for the world championship of a sport that inspires “a special lifestyle” of social interactions from diverse communities “learning to work with each other.”
 
Former LLOP manager Morgan House, who submitted the winning bid to host the event about three years ago, said he was “excited and amazed” to see it happen. He said the new management and organizing committee took charge to bring it to fruition.
 
Around 400 volunteers worked shifts directing cars, holding boats, delivering catered meals, transporting athletes, and performing other tasks. “It’s amazing … the outpouring of support from community groups,” said Kingsley Peeples, volunteer coordinator. “Churches, schools and businesses sent employees out. It’s a complete community effort.”
 
Technical chairperson Doug Smith and his staff trolled the water and roamed the finish tower to ensure the races ran on schedule and according to regulations. His crew consisted of volunteers like Cheryl Smith, assigned to train eyes on the starting line. Numerous local officials who honed regatta skills with the Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club and Lake Lanier Rowing Club poured their expertise into running races practically every 10 minutes – with lunch breaks – for four days.
 
Lynch said teams appreciated the promptness. “They said it was the first (world championship) to run on time. I credit the staff for that,” she said. She found the biggest challenge to be transporting teams who stayed all over Gainesville, from Motel 6 to Don Carter State Park, and in Gwinnett County. “We worked it out,” she said.
 
Team USA won the Nation’s Cup after three days of blistering heat with highs in the upper 80s succumbed to cool rain sprinkles on the final day. The fierce competition on the water coupled with a festival-like atmosphere on the Olympic plaza, where food trucks served barbecue, burgers, salads, and icy desserts and beverage carts poured beer and wine.
 
The number of spectators, originally predicted to be several thousand, seemed a bit off. Some local attendees – including Richard Smith who happened to ride by on his motorcycle and nearby resident Julie Jensen – dropped in out of curiosity. On Thursday and Friday 3,000 local middle schoolers lit up the grandstands, courtesy of the Ivester Foundation. Gainesville Middle School Principal Misty Freeman said the school partnered with the University of North Georgia to develop a curriculum based on cultures, traditions, skills and physics of dragon boating.
 
The sport dates back more than 2,000 years. The first participants were Chinese villagers who held races in the belief it would show worship to the dragon, a traditional symbol of water. Today the sport seats crews of either 10 or 20 paddling in unison to the beat of a drum in long boats outfitted with plastic dragon heads and tails.
 
Lynch said that after a winter’s break, the next wave of competition will come to LLOP in March with a regional rowing regatta.

 
US wins Nation’s Cup
 
The teams bringing the most athletes took top awards at the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships last month at LLOP. The 113-member Team USA edged out the German squad of 114 for the Nation’s Cup honoring the team with the most points. The Czech Republic, with the next highest number of athletes, 76, won bronze.
 
Led by many local athletes associated with the Lake Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club, the United States brought in the most medals with a total of 24. Germany was a close second with 23 medals, and the Czech Republic placed third, bringing in 20 medals.  
   
Teams with a large number of participants filled boats in a wide range of races covering 200, 500 and 2,000 meters. The top teams put paddles in the water in every category: men, women, and mixed in junior, senior and masters divisions.
 
Team USA Coach Mike Blundetto and Southeast Regional Coach Jim O’Dell, who steered many of the medal-winning boats, had predicted an overall victory. Both described the 2018 crew as some of the most fit and competitive athletes they had seen. About a quarter of Team USA members currently paddle or previously trained with Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club.
 
USA athletes took medals across the board, from junior to master’s 50+. The team collected 8 gold medals, 8 silver, and 8 bronze. Second place finisher Germany actually won more golds, 16, and achieved 5 silver and 2 bronze. The Czech Republic took 4 golds, 13 silvers, and 3 bronze.
 
Team USA Master’s Coach Mas Nash said having the championship “in our own backyard” definitely helped. “In the ICF all the Worlds are usually so far away – Hungary, Milan, Poland, Russia. Because it’s in the U.S., it’s so convenient. We don’t have to travel so far … it’s wonderful.”
 
Other teams and medal counts: Hungary 18, Canada 11, Italy 10, Philippines 9, Switzerland 3, France 2.

Faces of the World Championship
 

Martin Prchal, Czech Republic:
“This is my first time here. I know of it from the Olympics. It’s very nice.” He raced in five senior men and mixed categories. The team stayed in cottages at Don Carter State Park.

 

Mattia Fontani, Ambra Favarin, Leonardo Galantucci, Italy
: “This is a beautiful place. We are happy to be on the Olympic course. It is special to be here. It is a great honor for us to represent our country,” said Fontani.





Stephanie Foss, German: When not paddling, team members explored Helen, Raven Cliff Falls, and Amicalola Falls State Park. Of Helen, Foss said, “People think Germany is like Bavaria … it really isn’t like that.” Team stayed in Motel 6 in Gainesville.




Patricia Bustamante, The Philippines: “(LLOP) is wonderful, nice and very clean,” said the petite drummer. “It’s very important to wake them up and give them the signal when they need speed,” she said of her duty in the boat. Team stayed with Filipino families in Gwinnett County.



Mas Nash, USA: “Everything is on time, well organized and run very well.” The team stayed in Gainesville’s Hampton Inn and dined at IHOP and Avacado’s before racing Thursday.




Gainesville Middle Schoolers: Teacher Sharla Gladden accompanied students getting their photos taken with team members from every country. “Even though they’re tired, they still let us take our picture with them,” Gladden said.






Posted online 9/28/18
 

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