Dragon Boating: Smells Like Team Spirit

A couple of years ago I joined a mixed-aged women’s dragon boating team. It’s been amazing. I’ve met and connected with upwards of 30 different women from all walks of life. We aren’t only different in ages, we are on different career paths, seek different goals, come from various backgrounds, and share different strengths, emotionally and physically. Meeting these woman hasn’t been the only positive thing; I have gained self-esteem, realized I’m capable of pushing my body further than I’ve ever allowed it, and noticed the importance of belonging to a team. Most recently, I’ve felt what it’s like to win as a team.

At our coach’s discretion, I’ve been put in the front row of the boat this year. I sit on the right side and follow my team manager, Pam, who sits to my left. Pam is small but strong, she is quick and determined. There is a moderate age gap between Pam and I, and we have a running joke that I’m there to look after her in her (senior) moments. It’s up to Pam to set the time and pace for the boat, involving a series of intricate paddling steps throughout a race; when the horn blows, it’s 2 quick pulls to the shin, 1 to the knee, 3 full pulls, then 10 ups (aka: really flipping fast strokes), then hopping into a reach-hard-now, power-ten-now, ONE! Then we keep a one-two, one-two, rhythm for 500 meters. The whole boat follows the front row (Pam and I). Therefore it’s imperative that I am in time with her as we can’t have one side of the boat different with the other. That causes a whole mess and we don’t get anywhere.

Onto the races. This past weekend was a regatta event at Harrison Lake, British Columbia. Our 2nd race day of the season. These are the days we spend all season preparing for. Trying our damnedest to perfect our stroke technique. Our first race of the day was a warm up/preliminary. Only 200 meters. Sweet! We got this! Didn’t go so bad – we placed 3/5. Onto the next two races. They were a little more nerve wracking than the first. We have a new person steering the back of our boat. She is doing so wonderful, but has not had any practice in an official race. Our boat is faaaast in a race. Much faster than our race practices on our home water. Her simple bit of over correcting sent us on a bit of a zig-zag adventure. (It’s important to mention we wouldn’t be racing without her, and it takes a lot of confidence to stand on the back of that boat – I wouldn’t do it.) It became rather difficult for Pam and I to stay in time when we were trying to brace ourselves. Those weren’t our best races, but we did our best as a team.

After the 3rd race, we wearily headed back to the dock. Pam and I shared a look of whoa on our way and tried to shake off some nerves. We approached the dock and were nearly unloaded. I was on the dock and turned around to make sure Pam got off okay, as I try to (remember to) do. There were a couple of volunteers on the dock who were helping us get out and steady our sea legs. Pam was still sitting. She tucked her left foot under her seat to brace herself to stand and it slipped out from under her. The boat floor was like a bed of marbles from all the sand our shoes had tracked in. She fell back hard onto her seat and then fell even more, smashing her head on the seat behind her. In a second, I watched her eyes roll back in her head as she let out a faint gasp/cry. I dropped my gear and jumped back into the boat in front of her. An older gentleman and I helped her slowly sit upright and I quickly checked the back of her head for any lacerations. She said her arms were feeling tingly. We called for someone to grab first aid. I intently stared her in the eyes, reminding her she was okay and that it was just an embarrassing moment. I took off her paddle gloves and as I was doing so, she said, “You might have to lead the next race.” I chuckled nervously and told her we would worry about it later.

The first aid attendants ran down to us, and I took a look around me for the first time. The packed beach was quiet while everyone waited on Pam’s next move. We slowly eased her up onto the dock and limped her up the sandy beach into the first aid tent. The attendants got her onto a stretcher and we took off her life jacket. She looked at me and said, “Thank you.” I left the tent and walked towards a couple of teammates. One of them grabbed me as I’m sure she could tell I was terrified by the look on my face. We exchanged a huge hug and she offered to stay near the tent with Pam while I went to shake it off.

We went back to our team’s holding area and I tried to calm myself down. Pam returned after a half hour or so, holding a fancy ice pack to her head. She said she was fine. Our coach came around shortly after and told us to line up, which meant to stand in a line in order of our seats in the boat. I stood in front in my usual position with an empty spot beside me. Pam came around the corner and gave me an encouraging nod and a wink, but she didn’t line up. Then came our coach and she said, “Nicole! You’re lead stroke.” I looked around, uncertain. A few people suggested bringing up someone else with more experience. Pam and our coach both called over it and said, “We vote Nicole.” I was both excited and deflated. But there were enough teammates saying they believed in me, plus, enough of me which believed in myself. A big part of me was also saying, do the team proud! So, I agreed. I would sit lead stroke for my first time in a race, which happened to be our final race of the day.

We loaded up. Coach had moved everyone up a few seats so I had a strong partner beside me. I’d been paddling on my other side all day, so I was a little cold on the alternate side of the boat. We paddled out to our start line. Before the beginning of a race all you’re trying to do is keep your head in your own boat. You don’t want to be sizing up other boats or noticing the amount of spectators on shore. I was listening intently for the Madame Speaker to announce our positions, listening to the back of the boat (our new steers-person – also hoping that she could keep us in a straight line for this race) as she is in charge to get us perfectly placed on the starting line. I considered how terribly nervous she must have also been. Once all the racing boats were in alignment, we got race ready: paddles buried in the water and reached as far forward as possible, with the whole boat waiting on my first stroke. I heard the alarm! Quick-quick-quick, full-full-full, up two three four, up two three four, up two three four, reach-hard-now, power 10 now, ONE! And we were off! And I was doing it. Keeping my pace. Our caller was sitting at the front of the boat facing us and she was beating her drum and yelling her calls, based on my stroke. (Although, she was quite the experienced caller, so you could say we worked together in time.) The whole race all I could think was one-two one-two. Man, this is long. Don’t give up. Keep a rhythm. Like a metronome. Or a gallop. One-two, one-two.

Never look out of the boat. Focus on one spot inside the boat, keep reaching and keep your pace. Then I heard our caller, “Last push now! Give it all you got!” And we were screaming! I was driving that paddle into the water harder than I ever had before, and keeping a rhythm. I was yelling at myself to PUSH PUSH PUSH! Out of my peripherals I saw the second set of buoys – the finish line! Our caller yelled to, “Let it run!” I stopped paddling, looked around and…there wasn’t another boat in sight! We had won! First place! WE WON!

My seat partner grabbed me and put her arm around me, “We did it!” I screamed in excitement, “We did it!” Our steers-person was amazing that round and she kept us straight as an arrow. The front of the boat had great time to pull us through the clean water, the middle of the boat had our power and pushed through all the churned up H2O, and the back of the boat pressed on through the whirlpools around them. We did it – as a team. I totally cried happy tears.

I hated that Pam got hurt and the vision of her falling keeps replaying in my mind. I felt guilty that we were even considering to continue the race without her. But she wouldn’t have had it any other way. I know we did her proud. When we got back onto shore, Pam gave me the biggest hug and an, “I knew you could do it.” I think we will all be stepping into that boat a little more confident from now on.

Paddles up!

Nicole Lawson


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