Sometimes my writing has to move over and make room for the other passion in my life-dragon boat paddling. Dragon boats often figure in people’s minds as Asian vessels, with a fixed dragon head and tail. The sport originated in China but has since become an international phenomenon, with people of all ages and backgrounds participating. It has long been a bucket list item of mine to paddle in a dragon boat and it’s no secret to my family and friends how much I love bucket lists. So this year I decided to drag out my hefty pencil and check off one more item from my list.
When I signed on to be a dragon boat paddler I nonchalantly told the founder of the local Dragon Boat Club that I had spent many years kayaking. That much is true (though highly irrelevant as kayaking requires a different stroke). I also told him, in response to his question as to whether or not I was competitive and liked to win, “Yes, sure.” That is also true. Sounds good, right? After my first few practices I recall driving home with numb arms and legs, sores on my rear, and thinking, I just cannot do this. Never say never to a Capricorn.
I kept at it. Week after week in ever-changing weather conditions and with ever-changing body woes. Some weeks my neck was stiff, other days I couldn’t move my arms or my heart felt like it would burst out of my chest. Somehow, I found the fortitude to continue and slowly, my strength began to emerge. I had muscles where I never knew a person could have muscles. I could paddle double sets of 500 meters, and keep going, willingly. I learned to love the routine and the teammanship. Getting my own paddle and shirt became a goal. Once my cardio and technique improved, I started to enjoy myself, more and more.
Dragon boat paddling is not easy. Not for a second. It’s tough, physically demanding, and with 22 people on board (20 paddlers, 1 drummer and 1 steersperson) it requires trust and cooperation to move in sync. It’s crucial to paddle in time together. Every stroke and every second count. Every one. Everyone. When the boat would fill with water during practices, we would dutifully scoop it out, uncomplaining. When smoky skies infiltrated our lungs, we paddled. Sick, tired, sore, drenched, we paddled. I learned to watch the sky for changes in weather patterns, keeping an eye out for rogue clouds, lightning and errant jet-skiers. All because I joined a competitive team. My coach’s words came back to me. Those women will eat you up. They like to win. Well, I thought, so do I.
My first competition was an eye-opener. I traveled to another city, leaving the house before sunrise. I had my water bottle, lifejacket and paddle. The essentials for paddling. This was going to be a big challenge-my first competition and it was going to be on a river, not a lake. Racing on a river means a fast start. That means getting your paddle and body locked in and being mentally and physically ready when the horn blows. The tension mounts as the paddlers anticipate the start. Eyes are trained on the person in front of you. Arms are straight. Dig in. Go! The first few strokes mean everything.
We paddled as one, all 22 of us. And we won gold. I was ecstatic. Hooked. For our second competition, we won bronze. The next one is coming soon, and I know my team will bring everything they’ve got. We’re a winning team and we love the sport. That is dragon boat paddling-twenty two hearts beating as one.