By: Bruce Laregina and Hailey Chan
Green, red and yellow-headed dragon boats dart across the water as 20 racers manning each vessel paddle furiously in a 200-metre sprint to the finish line. Arm muscles flex, plunging wooden paddles into the waters of Lake Ontario. The boats pull forward, moving swiftly.
The racers navigate the long, graceful vessels with guided precision. Ryerson’s fastest boat, decorated with orange scales along the side and a bright green tail, comes closer and closer to the finish. Paddles controlled by forty arms dip and plunge, dip and plunge into the cool waters. Muscles burn. Forty eyes focus on the finish. They approach the line desperately. The nose of the boat gets closer and closer. They cross, placing fourth, and leaving the other 96 teams behind at the 2013 Toronto Island race. More than 5,000 athletes have just competed.
Despite their strong finish last year, winning isn’t everything for Ryerson’s dragon boat team, the largest university-level team in the country. The coaches focus more on developing the character of members on their team. “It’s not just about going fast. Ultimately, we’re trying to build life skills,” said Nick Fan, the team’s general manager. “We try to teach you something you might not learn in a classroom.”
This is a sport that is more than 2,000 years old and very much rooted in ancient Chinese culture, where the dragon is an iconic symbol. A classic dragon is made up of an ox-head, deer antlers, a horse mane, eagle claws, a fish tail and the body and scales of a snake. The paddles of the boat represent the dragon’s claws. The dragon signifies strength and power as a creature who rides the clouds and commands the wind, mist and rain. In ancient China, the dragon boat was used for religious purposes to please the rain gods.
Dragon boat racing began when warrior poet, Qu Yuan, committed suicide in the Miluoo River in China in 278 BC, as an act of defiance against the political corruption of the day. The villagers beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles, throwing rice into the water to distract the fish away from his body. Legend has it that he appeared to his friends after he died and asked them to wrap rice in silk packages to ward off a dragon.
As for Ryerson’s team, it’s just over a decade old. The team held its first practice in 2002, and has since blossomed, growing from 15 original racers that couldn’t even fill a single boat. In each boat, there are generally 18 to 20 paddlers plus a drummer and a steerer. Ryerson’s team has since grown to 80.
And more are still joining. The coaches can’t keep them away. People join dragon boat racing for a number of reasons, including to get in better shape, meet new friends, and to try something new.
“It’s a place to get fit, feel engaged and more importantly, a place to feel proud that you’re at Ryerson,” Fan said.
Last season’s team had more than 100 racers, but that’s a number that coaches were forced to trim down due to their budget.
For the newcomers who do wind up on the team, the first thing they learn is self-discipline. Coaches run gruelling two-hour paddling practices in Ryerson’s pool every Saturday. Racers sit in a line along the edge of the pool and, with flawless form, they paddle in perfect synchronization, creating a rhythmic splashing that echoes throughout nearby hallways.
The coaches also hold regular practices during the week. Racers are divided into boats based on their fitness levels, with the strongest teammates going in the competitive boats. As expected, more is demanded of these athletes. They must pack in more mandatory workouts than the rest of the group.
This dedication is intended to be maintained outside of the pool and away from the intensely sweaty workout sessions.
“To be able to get up when you’re having a bad day and go to the gym, understanding that 19 other people are relying on your commitment, is a life skill that is very translatable to the workforce,” Fan said. “Ultimately, the program is here to make them a better graduate, a better student, a better employee.”
And what they learn in school can be brought back to the pool. On Fan’s team, the business students run fundraising campaigns. The computer science students can work on the team website. The liberal arts students can blog about their experiences. Members of his team come from a wide variety of programs and all find a way to use their skills to help the dragon boat community.
Joining this team is not tryout based, which is why Ryerson has seen such a jump in participation. The coaches still track the progress of their athletes even though initial fitness levels are irrelevant to whether they are accepted onto the team.
“We try to find a place for everyone even if they’re an inexperienced paddler with very poor fitness,” Kevin Liu, the team’s head coach said. “University is one of the best places to get started in dragon boat. It’s one of the cheapest options, and one of the best learning environments because a lot of the top teams or outside (club) teams are usually more looking for people with experience.” Dragon boat clubs outside of universities charge up to $1,000 per year, a steep price compared to Ryerson’s $350.
For Lisa Tai, who’s been on the team for five years, dragon boat racing has provided an opportunity to embrace a leadership role. She is in talks with 22 new paddlers at George Brown College in an attempt to form a partnership with Ryerson.
The deal is simple: Ryerson swaps the use of its space and coaching expertise for training tips from the college students. Many on the George Brown team are studying health promotion, a program that teaches proper nutrition and overall body care. They can teach Ryerson athletes about proper training and health regimes. For example, George Brown has advised Ryerson paddlers on what to eat after a race, saying that it’s just as important as what goes in the stomach beforehand. Fan says that this is something the competition might not fully understand.
“A lot of teams out there don’t have that proper training,” says Fan. “To me, that’s a proper partnership. We help them get off the ground, and in return, we gain their expertise.”
And as it turns out, being known in the dragon boat community can have some serious perks. Students are always taught about the importance of networking and this community is packed with opportunity. Valerie Ng, an assistant coach on the team, says that her involvement on Ryerson’s squad directly led to numerous job options.
“Because of dragon boat, I find that I’ve been able to get employed,” Ng said. “They ask me, ‘Tell me more about dragon boat. Tell me more about your leadership in that.’”
Paddlers will sometimes even race against industry professionals. Through competition connections, Ng got referrals and plenty of job advice, recently scoring a job at accounting giant Deloitte.
“This is why we do what we do,” Fan says, “You just can’t buy opportunities like this.”
Back inside the Ryerson pool, the athletes dip their paddles back in the water and power through another few minutes of muscle torture on a typical Saturday practice.
This evening, the team is being guided through the motions. A booming coach voice interrupts the rhythmic splashes.
“Paddles up! You’re on!” he yells. Another workout has come to a close.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 19, 2014.