If you had to wait for my first-hand account of this Saturday’s boat race, you would miss the event. Therefore, I have invited a writer friend, Terri Robins, to give you her inside information on the Dragonistas of Lake James, racing June 15 at Lake Lure. Here is my first guest blog:
“Dragonistas Breathe Fire Together” by Terri Robins
“Quiet on the boat!” The command is quickly obeyed and quiet prevails on the forty-foot dragon boat. “Ready-ready!” Instantly twenty paddlers seated two by two simultaneously lean forward clicking the boat’s edge in anticipation. “Attention!” As in one move, paddle blades are buried in the water. “WAAAAAAAA!” The air horn’s blast comes; paddles rise and fall; in and out of the water together to a shouted count of six deep strokes designed to get the boat moving forward. The next two sets of eight are fast to increase forward momentum and speed.
The cadence slows slightly as the words “Reach it out!” become the new command. “Power Ten!” signals paddlers to dig in deeper, thereby shoveling more water to forcibly increase the speed. Depending on the length of the race, commands and corresponding paddling responses continue until the end blast. Twenty panting women sit up for their first look around since race’s beginning. The positions are announced and the boats begin their trip back to the loading area.
It all seems to end quickly, but regular paddlers of the dragon boat team know they face many practice sessions between races, at least two per week, to build stamina and improve speed. For approximately seven months, practices and races crowd other activities out of team member schedules. Why, one has to wonder, the sacrifice and dedication? Is it primarily the thrill of winning races? I’ve only been involved since April, but my observation is that winning is fun, and Lake James is a beautiful place to practice, but there’s more to it than that.
Once, I had my own kayaks, which I loved. The drawback for me personally was getting in and out of the darn thing by myself. There are obviously advantages to paddling with others! I haven’t tried to compete yet on the dragon boat because my left arm is especially weak from a rotor cuff operation. My other muscles are overwhelmed as well. When I’ve voiced concerns that I’m not good enough, I’m quickly told stories of how long it took for the others to get it, and how some are still hoping to get it after years of effort. I’ve also found out that the boat doesn’t have to capsize to get you wet. I got soaked in a recent practice because I was too slow getting the paddle out after a stroke. I hoped it was because the person behind me was too slow as well, but I learned it was me by asking.
I showed up in support for the first competition since joining the group, even though I was not ready to compete. It was on Lake Norman in Charlotte. I felt like a hero to have gotten up at 6:00am to make it in time, until I found out most of the others had gotten up at 4:30. I did do what I felt I could: I baked cookies the day before, and once there I clapped and cheered for our team. They heard me from the boat on their return from their last competition, and gave me a thrill by calling my name. I was given a commemorative pin just like everyone else, though I was told it was to keep me bringing homemade cookies.
Many of these paddlers are breast cancer survivors. Although it is debatable whether the exercise itself helps in the battle to overcome cancer, it is certainly beneficial as physical therapy after surgery. I think it’s more than the exercise that draw these women together to undertake a shared and difficult task. We become a team with a common goal and share the outcome of the effort. We meet regularly, usually greeted with a warm hug and a sincere “How are you?” We keep up with each person’s ordeal, which also includes other health and personal challenges. We encourage each other; we weep together, laugh together, hope together, as well as paddle together. Just like the movement of each person affects the boat, we all depend on the care of each other.
Dragon boating is not the only way for cancer or other disease bearers to get support. And not all suffering is physical. Churches, inspirational speakers, support groups, all operate on this premise that help is found in numbers. In the animal kingdom, the lone survival of a herd animal is very rare. Apparently we are herd animals as well.
First race at 9:15 Medal Presentation at 5:00