Dragon boat racing gathers steam in NYC

China Daily | Updated: 2017-08-23 05:28

Dragon boat racing gathers steam in NYC

Danielle Adami (second right paddler) at a 500-meter race at 27th Annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Queens, NY on Aug 12, 2017. The team has won 500-meter final on Aug 13. Adami has joined the dragon boat team for three years. GAO YUXIAO / FOR CHINA DAILY

Take it easy, and don't get too excited, Max Pina warned himself so he wouldn't spend all of his life savings on dragon boat paddles and gear. A manager at HSBC bank in Queens, New York, Pina has been a crewman on the bank's dragon boat team since 2015.

He raced in this year's annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York on Aug 12 and 13.

After 27 years of continuous development since the first event in 1990, the race has become one of the largest culturally diverse events in New York City. This year, more than 200 teams entered the race.

The event also featured performances by music ensembles and Shaolin kung fu masters. Asian cuisines were served. People from all five boroughs came to see the race and cheer teams on.

"I was so excited about this because instead of just doing any other hobby or hanging out, I can actually be a part of something after work," Pina said, recalling his first practice." It's just the nature of the whole dragon boat thing — they welcome you with open arms."

His teammate Danielle Adami, a financial analyst who lives in New Jersey, joined the team a year earlier. She joined dragon boat practice because she was looking for something new and healthy to do on weekends.

"The moment I got there, I already felt welcomed," Adami said. "They are like my family now."

A typical dragon boat team has 10 to 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steersman. Unlike other rowing sports, left and right paddlers sit side by side, each only using one paddle. The drummer sets the pace. The coach is usually the steersman, who is responsible for keeping the boat going forward in the right direction.

Adami has played soccer for years, but in her view, dragon boat racing takes a different kind of teamwork.

"In soccer there's usually that one star player who makes all the goals," Adami said. "(But with dragon boats,) you are only as strong as the weakest link. It takes the whole team to pull a boat."

"The whole idea of dragon boating is everyone needs to be at the same pace. If you have one person or two people out of sync, it really slows the boat down," said Brian Plante, another teammate.

Dominique Soda, an executive assistant with human resources who just joined the sport this year, observed how the synchronization and teamwork of dragon boat racing have much to do with the Chinese culture and the value it places on group effort. She read up on the history of dragon boat racing and became intrigued by it.

The legend of dragon boats origin goes back 2,300 years to the great poet Qu Yuan, a loyal court official of the state of Chu, who drowned himself in the Miluo River after the capital was invaded by a neighboring state. Failing to save Qu Yuan from death, villagers rushed to the river on boats and threw rice wrapped in leaves, splashed water with paddles, and drummed loudly — all efforts to keep the fish from eating Qu's body before they could get to it. Since then, Qu's death has been commemorated with Dragon Boat Festivals featuring rice wrapped in leaves and boat races across the country on the fifth of May of lunar calendar.

James Ma, the founder and coach of Puff Puff Dragon Boat Club, has been devoted to the sport since 1996, when there were fewer than 20 teams in New York. He has witnessed the fast growing popularity of dragon boating in the area. He explained that since dragon boat racing is not an Olympic sport, it is hard for grass-roots clubs to raise funds, so most clubs in New York are corporate funded.

Michelle Gao contributed to this story.

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