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Year of the dragon

A small but competitive group of Americans falls in love with the ancient Chinese sport of dragon boat racing

LUNG-STRETCHING: Deep Purple readies for a race

Year of the dragon
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PRINCETON, N.J. - Two days before the big race, a long, blade-like canoe paused at sunset on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. Twenty paddlers crouched in tight pairs steadied the craft, called a dragon boat, awaiting instructions from their steersman.

"Attention!" barked Kathy Wright, a retired Navy reserves senior chief. The paddles dunked in the water.


The team lunged ahead, arms straight and fastened to the paddles. In, out, with chesty, synchronized strokes, bodies rolling forward in rhythm. "Twenty . . . Thirty," called Wright, clocking the passing seconds.

"BRING . . . IT . . . HOME!"

At Wright's final clarion call, the paddlers plunged longer and deeper, stopping in gasping groans as the 200-meter practice run ended. Behind the boat, the dusky silhouette of a Navy Yard ship loomed against a golden-salmon sky. "Everybody look at the sunset," Wright said, relenting. "You get two minutes to look at the sunset."

With the beginning of autumn the DC Dragons are entering the final stretch of the competing season. They are a jumble of Washington-area professionals hailing from workplaces that include a Maryland university, a National Institute for Health, and a high-powered Beltway consulting firm. They are men and women, old and young, large and little, water rats and non-swimmers. But they share one thing in common: Somehow, they all got hooked on an ancient Chinese water sport.

Many of the team's stalwarts had never even heard of dragon boat racing before they tried it. History and a splash of legend have it that the sport began some 2,300 years ago with the drowning of a patriotic poet. Xu Yuan, a royal advisor, flung himself into the Miluo River when the king rebuffed his advice and so ruined the kingdom. Villagers raced in their boats in vain to save Xu, throwing him rice to eat and beating drums and thrashing their paddles to repel fish and spirits. Since then, Chinese have marked his summer death with dragon boat festivals.

Modern-day dragon boat racing spread from Hong Kong to the West in the 1970s and is now one of the world's fastest-growing water sports. The DC Dragons began as a women's paddling side, only later adding men. Just a few years ago DC's mixed team was so bad, Wright said, even the Boy Scouts beat them. Now they travel up and down the coast and across borders to compete.

At a recent festival, the motley crew even beat a young and "buff" Taiwanese men's team, who first laughed when they saw that DC fielded girls. When WORLD met the team, they were practicing for a pivotal New Jersey regatta: If they placed well, they would snag a spot at the 2008 Club Crew World Championships for the first time, the top contest for individual clubs.

The trick is to earn enough points to rank first in the Eastern region's association. Only one mixed team for the region could go to Penang, Malaysia, the 2008 location, and for a quirky sport with only 90,000 North American devotees, the competition is tough.

Race day on Sept. 22 brought unexpected fog and downpours at New Jersey's 2,500-acre Mercer County Park near Princeton University. Temporary camps sprouted on the lakeshore as dragon boat teams staked out picnic tables and erected open-sided tents for the day. The DC Dragons divided themselves into three teams: Malaysia hopefuls "Deep Purple"; second-stream "Red Hot"; and "Go Pink," the side's breast cancer survivors, an all-female team competing for the first time.

Around 9:30 a.m., DC team captain Steve Schmidt ordered Deep Purple in a circle to warm up for their first race, a 200-meter heat. He had a couple of worries: Used to 250-meter runs, the team was slower building speed in the shorter sprint. Also, his crucial but asthmatic "stroke," James Prunier, was shaking off a cold and carrying the boxy outline of an inhaler in his shorts.

The stroke sits in the front row and sets the team's rhythm and pace, aided by a drummer. If Prunier could not make the lung-stretching races, Schmidt, 32, would have to find a quick replacement.

"You've been training all year for this," he said, in a taut, authoritative tone, the kind you would expect from a former university team rower. "Keep the breath even. Keep the eyes open and straight ahead. That's it. It's boring."

As is traditional, organizers fix dragon heads and tails on the race boats, whose sides are painted with scales. An official also dotted the irises of a dragon head in a ceremony to "wake the dragon."

Four boats pushed off and lined up in the distance. Within a lake-slicing minute, the race was over. When hundredths of seconds separate the competitors, discerning the winner is hard from the shoreline. For the paddlers inside the boats, it is virtually impossible.

Back on shore, Schmidt's teammate Ana Arostegui scanned the scoreboard worriedly. She took up dragon boating first, and an initially skeptical Schmidt quickly got hooked later. Deep Purple aimed for a killer 45 seconds in their race. After a bumpy start, they clocked 50:32, just enough to win fifth and last place in the following 200-meter championship final.

"What happened?" a Red Hot teammate asked. "You guys were so fast."

"People were faster," Arostegui said, shrugging. It was a close call in a regatta filled with East Coast dragon boat festival winners. Many are corporate teams, with names like Merrill Dragons and GSK Spitzfire, and some have all Asian-American lineups. In the next 400-meter qualifier, DC did better, capitalizing on its endurance.

Between the qualifiers and championship races, the teams had calming lulls. Paddlers and their families relaxed on folding chairs and benches, enjoying the camaraderie that drew them to the sport. Grills sizzled with meat, a DJ pumped tunes to the crowd, and an Elvis impersonator took up watch near a pink '50s Cadillac meant to raise breast cancer awareness.

At DC's camp, teammates buzzed over their picnic table, snacking on grapes, apples, and granola bars. Prunier, 24, is the team's bespectacled youngest member and works at Lockheed Martin. His sniffles under control, he hovered over other paddlers, chiding them to stick to "water-based food" when they reached for chips or hot dogs. Later he settled down with a sci-fi novel about Hamlet undesirably haunting an attic.

Between the power snacks, the DC Dragons reflected on their chosen sport's attraction. Anyone can do it, they said: Seamless teamwork propels the boat faster than sheer power; any discord and the paddles clash. "You start out very clumsy and totally self-absorbed," explained Deep Purple's Toàn Pham, an email administrator at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). He was there with his wife and little daughters. "You only know your own space . . . then you graduate and feel the rest of the boat."

Paul Bolding, a muscular 6-foot-1 former high-school football player, wondered at something else: the women's stamina. "I ain't gonna fake," the 35-year-old told WORLD, shaking his head. "There'd be times when I'd be in the boat and I'd feel like quitting. Then I'd look up and see these women." Later, as Go Pink's cancer survivors paddled their final race, he climbed down to a tree at the water's edge and cheered the loudest. The women won gold and silver medals.

But first, Deep Purple had to tackle its own championship races. As the marshaling call went out, silver-haired teammate Ken King, 54, groaned. "It's nothing but nerves right now," he said, his paddle in grip. "My stomach's in knots. No pressure, but you have to win if you want to go to Malaysia."

In the end, the team placed second in the 200 meters, third in the 400. A pleased Schmidt praised his team. The day did not bring the all-out wins Deep Purple wanted, but the team snagged enough points for Malaysia next year. As for that afternoon, the sun was finally shining, and a tray of hitherto forbidden brownies beckoned on the picnic table.

Priya Abraham Priya is a former WORLD reporter.


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