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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dragon Boat Racers Feel the Need for Speed

Rhythmic counting and collective chanting pulse through the 40-foot long canoe as the swift movements of eighteen rowers slice through a back bay of Long Beach, California on a crisp February morning during a Chinese Association Dragon Boat practice. The coach, doubling as caller, announces in a low, but solid voice, “Power, ten, NOW!”—to which paddlers respond with a low, exhale-like grunt. The caller continues to chant, “two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, ready, and…” Paddlers, who have been rowing according to the counting pace set by the caller, respond, “Reach!”

“What??”


“REACH!”

This procession of words and numbers is a Power-10 call, where each word, number, and sound represents a stroke. The caller and paddlers don’t chant too loudly because residents along the back shore of Mother’s Beach have complained about noise, but that doesn’t stop these people from dominating the water.

CADB, or Elements, on the water in San Francisco, Nov 2008
Dragon boat is a sport involving 22 people in a long, narrow canoe, with 20 rowers, a steersperson in the back, and a person sitting or standing in the front, calling to keep pace. Come competition time, a dragon tail and head is attached onto the canoe traditionally built out of teak wood, complementing the scales painted on the body of the boat to complete the image of a dragon-boat. UC Irvine is privileged to have such a well-established team on campus to practice this unique sport, which has Chinese roots but as observed through the years, draws all for its superb side-effects of team-building and physical conditioning, to name a few. Dragon boat racing existed for centuries in southern China as a folkloric ritual. Like all myths, there are many variations of the exact origin, but one of the most popular legends tells of Yu Quan. He was a renowned poet-scholar of the Chu Dynasty and loved the Chu State, but observed its crumbling at the hand of Emperor Huai’s corrupt misjudgments, and as a result, threw himself into the Miluo River because he could no longer bear to witness the destruction of what he once loved. This caused great despair to the many who loved Quan—they took the water in boats, racing to rescue him with no luck, and threw zhongzi, traditional bamboo leaf-wrapped rice dumplings into the river in hopes of feeding the fish so they may possibly recover his body.

This tale provides the foundation of the sport of dragon boating as we recognize it in present day, as well as the festival that goes along with it, called Duanwu Festival. During the festival, dragon boats race against each other, a vestige of what once was. On the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar calendar by which most East Asian cultures live, festival-goers feast on zhongzi, a heaven-on-Earth combination of sticky rice, peanuts, pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, and dried egg yolk (as a special treat) all wrapped up in aromatic dried bamboo leaves and tied up with string. By the solar calendar, that’s around the beginning of June. But for CADB, racing is a year-round custom. As soon as the school year begins in mid-September, the team seeks out recruits during O-Week, or week zero on the university registrar’s academic calendar. That’s precisely when 8th generation coach Justin Chi, also known as Chi, was first drawn into the sport. He recalls, “I saw the video for recruiting [during O-Week of freshman year] and thought it was pretty cool. Everyone looked really strong, they were all in sync, and was just something I’ve never seen before…it was whatever in the beginning, but I eventually kept going out because of the people.” Similarly, third year Yvonne Lau thought that initially, dragon boat would just be something new to try. She says, “I didn’t really expect to get so involved with this new sport, but I ended up falling in love with the people on the team and the atmosphere of practice.” The team holds mock practices the first few Saturdays of Fall Quarter, allowing students to come out and test the waters to see how they feel about the sport, and just as essentially, being a part of the team. New member initiations include throwing those who have raced for UC Irvine the very first time into the water. “But of course, that’s all for fun. We strongly discourage hazing or excessive peer pressure,” 8th generation Chi emphasizes. After the introductory practices, however, it’s time to buckle down to prepare for the first fast-approaching race in San Diego in late October. As races loom, Sunday practices become mandatory in addition to the usual Saturday trips down to Mothers Beach. The next race after San Diego is barely three weeks following, in San Francisco. There is a break until the Tempe, Arizona race in late March, and another short break until May, when “Baby” Long Beach happens. The big, “Summer Long Beach” as it is most commonly known as, which takes place in on July 30-31st this year, is the final competition for the 2010-2011 year until a new generation—as CADB names its years of existence—starts in the Fall, like clockwork.

The team has a documented win-loss record dating back to summer 2005, when they won first place in the College Division at the Viewsonic Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival. In the years after that, they’ve placed first at Arizona in 2008, California Dragon Boat Association College Championship (an annual race in northern California) in Division C, and again at “Summer Long Beach” in Division B. The team has a total of fifteen other placements ranging from second to fourth. Their fastest documented race time is just less than two minutes, which Chi admits is “like impossible for [the] team, honestly.” He goes on to explain what could have allowed the team to achieve this time—“It’s ‘cause…the distance wasn’t done properly, the lanes weren’t set up correctly, so our time wasn’t accurate. But honestly, I really don’t care about time; it’s just all about how the boat feels. It’s all relative.” As recently as the last school year, Elements was driven by a mindset completely different from the kind that the team currently lives by. Chi proudly states, “Finally, last quarter, we got to a place where it’s not all about winning and that was a huge attitude problem—people had the mindset of ‘win or quit.’ It was a disease. Last quarter, we came together, we didn’t come out on top but people enjoyed the race.” He works hard to maintain this outlook, but as with every other aspect of dragon boat, it’s got to be a team effort. Everyone must share this feeling to sustain the positive, but dedicated attitude that attributes to a healthy foundation of any team effort. Yvonne Lau’s beliefs reflect this. “
I just love the feeling of working out in general. It always feels great to see the improvement from both myself and from my teammates over several weeks of practice.” She says of competitions, “All races are the same to me because we’re basically going through the same motions that we do during practice. The only differences between races are the category we race in, such as college division, mixed division, genders, etc. or the length of the race—sprints of 250 meters or the typical length of 500 meters.” But Yvonne draws us away from the technical aspects of competing. “My favorite times with the team are during races because they’re just really amazing experiences with bonding with the team and spending time with them. My personal most memorable one was during my first year with CADB and second race with them at Tempe, Arizona…it was just something that I’ve never experienced before since it was such a different environment and it felt like taking a vacation with the team. We bonded so much during that race and had so many memories from [it].” When asked about some more disappointing moments of racing, she said, “We’ve had race pieces here and there that were disappointing, like when the boat feels heavy throughout the race.” Despite this fact, she still loves “the positive and encouraging atmosphere of dragon boat because everybody is working together to haul one huge boat at the same time.”

Spotted on a rower’s life jacket is the succinct quip, “Shut Up and Paddle,” adequate enough to portray the attitude of the team—not because paddling and ultimately winning is their primary goal, but because paddling is what brings the team together. Toiling hard to earn something together is what this student-run constituent of Chinese Association at UC Irvine is about—the team sacrifices their weekend mornings until noon, they strive to achieve their maximum physical and personal potential, they have grown closer all because paddling drives them to. CADB, or Elements, was founded in 2003 by Kevin Lee, who was a freshman at the time. He attended a high school the San Francisco Bay area, one that was very reputable in the sport of dragon boating, a sport that he was unsurprisingly very involved with. Lee decided he’d go through Chinese Association, which he correctly assumed would be a good foundation because of its establishment of basic resources such as advertising and financial help. Not uncommonly, Lee advertised largely through word-of-mouth in the infancy of his new organization—asking friends of friends of friends to come out to meetings and practices just to check things out. He managed to get a boat together to race that first year, which is some accomplishment to recognize, since it entails gathering 21 others, training them, and building up their little or nonexistent skills, preparing them for competition. Eventually, in 2004 or 2005, the 2nd or 3rd year of the group, Kevin decided to appoint two captains, giving birth to the development of the constituent’s modern-day hierarchy. Currently, CADB offers an internship program called Dragon Boat Officer-in-Training Program, more commonly known as DBOT. Next tier up are team captains, and at the top of pyramid is the position of coach. CADB, whose official team name is Elements, is a constituent of Chinese Association (CA) at UC Irvine, only one of three, others including Chinese Association Martial Arts (CAMA) and the ever-popular Chinese Association Dance Crew (CADC). No doubt exists that this unique branch of CA has long since created a respectable name for themselves and for UC Irvine, just as their sister constituents have.

CADB boat runs dryland drill at 'Summer Long Beach', Aug 2009
There are already dozens of other dragon boaters set up and getting their routine started with team talk and group stretches arriving at Mothers Beach on a clear, blue, Long Beach day. CADB lags a little as they set their belongings on the grass, letting the morning sink in. Sunblock is getting sprayed and smeared on as the Dragon Boat Officers-in-Training, also known as DBOTs, round up the group to start stretches. Meanwhile, the Captains Nick Tom, Patrick Ng and Megan Wu and DBOTs Jackie Chu, Karen Chen, Sandy Wong and Allison Mok form a huddle with Chi to make last minute adjustments to their practice scheduled planned for the day according to how the previous day’s practice ran, number of paddlers in attendance, and specifically who as well—size and skill are taken into consideration when making arrangements as well. “Well, he says he prefers not to sit in the mid-strokes..” “Is she going to be here today?” “Oh, she’s on her way actually so we can keep her there.” These on-the-spot rearrangements demonstrate only a fraction of the challenges of holding a team together. Obviously, the team can’t race if it fails to fill boats, but that is hardly ever a problem. More apparent is the difficult task of getting people to understand that practices are mandatory. Chi states, “It used to be harder in the past, but now people have become more dedicated. One thing I’ve incorporated is just accountability.” And it seems to be working, because no one appreciates extra drill sets thanks to absent team members. As for teaching the sport, he also says, “it’s tough ‘cause you’ve got to train this whole boat of newbies. What I try to do is lead by example, try to show my passion for the sport…hopefully they make sense of what they see.”

An Elements rower signs a paddle
at year-end banquet, May 2009
At the previous day’s practice, the coach and team captains added another element to the team’s pre-practice rituals. Other than slathering on sunscreen and stretching out, the team gathered to have a pre-practice discussion—basically, a heart-to-heart—where they talked about recent issues such as shortage of paddlers, the freshman who left to pledge a fraternity but is coming back to help fill up a boat, and falling behind schedule in terms of where the team needs to be with working towards the Arizona race. But today, the team heads down to the waterline to get ready to fill up the two boats they’ve been assigned for the day. After several quick sets warm-up strokes, Justin, who is also caller, states, “Paddles above your head, turn to face your partner and get a really good stretch.” The paddlers all know what to do next; heads bow down as everyone leans forward together, laying their paddle across the back of their teammate in front of them and wiggling it to the left and right. A faint tap-tap , tap-tap is heard throughout the boat as all paddlers gently strike the back facing them with their paddle in an effort to loosen each other up to prepare for the arduous workout that lay ahead of them. “Paddles in hand! And take it away.”

These small, but significant gestures of camaraderie are demonstrated outside the boat as well, but on a larger scale. The team goes on a retreat once a year—in the past, they have gone camping, paintballing, and indoor rock-climbing. Socials such as ice skating or game night are held as well and at least part of the team almost always goes out to grab a bite after practice. The team is comprised of about 100 members, with 50 active paddlers. Although it is composed primarily of Asian students, CADB has had rowers of all kinds of heritages, including foreign exchange students. The team isn’t predominantly Chinese or Asian merely because dragon boat is a sport with Chinese roots; in fact, Justin Chi states, “It’s really funny because we have had no emphasis on culture… I just want it to be seen as a family." Megan Wu, one of three team captains, reflects on what she loves about the team. "..this team means so much more to me than just any team-related or social club. This team is my family. I feel like we have all become this kind of odd strange cohesive unit. Everyone on this team has their own unique quirky personality, but it’s that we are able to accept each other for exactly who we are. This team has become my support system, knowing that I can always come out to practice have a good time and leave everything on the water makes me feel better about any situation. And from joining this team, I’ve been able to make some of my closest friends. I would have missed out on so many life changing experiences, if it wasn’t for CADB." Understandably, her words may be mistaken for a warm, gooey cliche, but Wu draws her feelings from reminiscing her days of being on a very close-knit swim team, and to her, it's definitely not the same. "It’s knowing that when you’re paddling in the boat that everyone else is right there with you, doing the exact same thing at the exact same time...the feeling that all 22 people in the boat are working towards one common goal. I think what’s special about this team is not that we get together every weekend to practice, but that we spend time with each other off the water.” Yvonne agrees that “
[The] most memorable moments with CADB are at retreats, races, and the random times we hang out with each other. I love how we randomly have all these inside jokes with each other.” One of the most rewarding things about UC Irvine's dragon boat team is undoubtedly the friendships to be had with dozens others who are all connected by one common interest—and that is paddling.

Tension has built up to a near-unbelievable amount at this point of the set. The coach has been calling starts for a while now; he demands prior to practicing a mock-start for the fifth time in a row, “SURGE out of dead water, explode, really explode!” They say that breakfast is the most important meal, providing fuel for an individual to properly begin the day. The same holds true for starts—strong ones are crucial to a solid overall race. The 40-foot long canoe carrying 22 people adds up to a bit of tonnage, and for paddlers to swiftly haul all of that out of inertia and into sailing rapidity, it takes consistent fine-tuning during practice. Customized, polished, sleek paddles dig into the steely February water, their wielders holding them still but are at the ready to plunge them into the soon-to-be choppy surface. Just as quickly as the start began, it is all over in a matter of seconds. Practice is over, triceps are burning, and the boat glides toward shore. Chris, a third-year, is satisfied, saying, “Practice was solid. It really tested endurance.” Joyce proclaims, “I’m going to kill Nick. That was one of the worst.”
But as Chi loves to say, “Pain is now, but Glory is forever.”

------------------------------------
Reporting Notes:
-76-minute long interview with Justin Chi, Coach of CADB
-Follow-up interview with Justin Chi
-Brief interview with Megan Wu
-Brief interview with Joyce Lee
-Brief interview with Yvonne Lau
-Observations at practice
-CADB Elements Team Website: http://db.cauci.com/
-Team Youtube videos (09-10 Orientation video, 1 practice clip)
-Wikipedia articles: “Duanwu Festival”, “Dragon Boat” – facts verified by checking with other sources
-SmithsonianMag.com Article: “The Legends Behind the Dragon Boat Festival”
-Facebook page: “CAUCI Dragonboat"

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