During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Lake Lanier hosted rowing, canoeing and kayaking events. This weekend, the venue north of Atlanta is hosting another global sports competition.
The International Canoe Federation’s Dragon Boat world championships start Thursday morning after an opening ceremony Wednesday night. It’s the first time the event is being held in North America
What’s a dragon boat?
“You basically sit in a big boat with 19 other people and you have a steerer in the back and a drummer in the front that gives the rhythm, and the beat,” Julia Gierig, a paddler and coach for Team Germany, said.
There are 20-paddler and 10-paddler boats. Unlike rowing, each person has one paddle. And when you have that many people trying to stroke in unison, the drum is crucial.
Len Escollante coaches Team Philippines. She said she thinks of the drummer as a coach in Escollante’s place in the boat.
The long, slim boats are decorated with colorful dragon heads and tails because the sport has ancient roots in China. But it’s taken on a big, modern following. Eleven countries and under a thousand athletes are competing in Gainesville. However, a few other teams, including Russia, South Korea and ironically, China, couldn’t get visas in time.
Organizers are expecting about 12,000 spectators this weekend.
When participants talk about the modern sport of dragon boating, one word keeps coming up: teamwork.
“It is a team sport,” David Walda, coach and paddler for Team USA, said. “I don’t think you’re going to collectively find a sport where you have 20 people that really have to work together as a single unit. The timing has to be crisp. The stroke, the technique.
“You have to have power, you have to have strength, but you have to have good technique and timing in the boat to really make a difference. Especially for the short races, if your timing is off, you could lose the race right from the start.”
Gierig from Team Germany said she switched to the sport from kayaking because of the opportunity to compete with other people.
“You have people in the boat that are 19, you have people that are 50, from all kinds of backgrounds also, and you have to shape that into a team. And that makes it super interesting,” she said. “Not very easy, but somehow it works, after a while.”
“This is really a team sport,” Escollante said. “Why? Because the action is the same. It’s very synchronized … if you compare it to basketball, their action is different. They’re a team but the action is different. You can pass, somebody will shoot, somebody will rebound. The dragon boat is very rare synchronization.”
That synchronization will be on peak display this weekend during 114 races scheduled through Sunday. And excitement is high.
How is Wald feeling?
“I think we’re going to be pretty competitive,” he said. “I’m not going to make any predictions. Predictions are not good.”