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LUNG-STRETCHING: Deep Purple readies for a race

Year of the dragon

Sports | A small but competitive group of Americans falls in love with the ancient Chinese sport of dragon boat racing

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

PRINCETON, N.J. - Two days before the big race, a long, blade-like canoe paused at sunset on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. Twenty paddlers crouched in tight pairs steadied the craft, called a dragon boat, awaiting instructions from their steersman.

"Attention!" barked Kathy Wright, a retired Navy reserves senior chief. The paddles dunked in the water.

"GO!"

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The team lunged ahead, arms straight and fastened to the paddles. In, out, with chesty, synchronized strokes, bodies rolling forward in rhythm. "Twenty . . . Thirty," called Wright, clocking the passing seconds.

"BRING . . . IT . . . HOME!"

At Wright's final clarion call, the paddlers plunged longer and deeper, stopping in gasping groans as the 200-meter practice run ended. Behind the boat, the dusky silhouette of a Navy Yard ship loomed against a golden-salmon sky. "Everybody look at the sunset," Wright said, relenting. "You get two minutes to look at the sunset."

With the beginning of autumn the DC Dragons are entering the final stretch of the competing season. They are a jumble of Washington-area professionals hailing from workplaces that include a Maryland university, a National Institute for Health, and a high-powered Beltway consulting firm. They are men and women, old and young, large and little, water rats and non-swimmers. But they share one thing in common: Somehow, they all got hooked on an ancient Chinese water sport.

Many of the team's stalwarts had never even heard of dragon boat racing before they tried it. History and a splash of legend have it that the sport began some 2,300 years ago with the drowning of a patriotic poet. Xu Yuan, a royal advisor, flung himself into the Miluo River when the king rebuffed his advice and so ruined the kingdom. Villagers raced in their boats in vain to save Xu, throwing him rice to eat and beating drums and thrashing their paddles to repel fish and spirits. Since then, Chinese have marked his summer death with dragon boat festivals.

Modern-day dragon boat racing spread from Hong Kong to the West in the 1970s and is now one of the world's fastest-growing water sports. The DC Dragons began as a women's paddling side, only later adding men. Just a few years ago DC's mixed team was so bad, Wright said, even the Boy Scouts beat them. Now they travel up and down the coast and across borders to compete.

At a recent festival, the motley crew even beat a young and "buff" Taiwanese men's team, who first laughed when they saw that DC fielded girls. When WORLD met the team, they were practicing for a pivotal New Jersey regatta: If they placed well, they would snag a spot at the 2008 Club Crew World Championships for the first time, the top contest for individual clubs.

The trick is to earn enough points to rank first in the Eastern region's association. Only one mixed team for the region could go to Penang, Malaysia, the 2008 location, and for a quirky sport with only 90,000 North American devotees, the competition is tough.

Race day on Sept. 22 brought unexpected fog and downpours at New Jersey's 2,500-acre Mercer County Park near Princeton University. Temporary camps sprouted on the lakeshore as dragon boat teams staked out picnic tables and erected open-sided tents for the day. The DC Dragons divided themselves into three teams: Malaysia hopefuls "Deep Purple"; second-stream "Red Hot"; and "Go Pink," the side's breast cancer survivors, an all-female team competing for the first time.

Around 9:30 a.m., DC team captain Steve Schmidt ordered Deep Purple in a circle to warm up for their first race, a 200-meter heat. He had a couple of worries: Used to 250-meter runs, the team was slower building speed in the shorter sprint. Also, his crucial but asthmatic "stroke," James Prunier, was shaking off a cold and carrying the boxy outline of an inhaler in his shorts.

The stroke sits in the front row and sets the team's rhythm and pace, aided by a drummer. If Prunier could not make the lung-stretching races, Schmidt, 32, would have to find a quick replacement.

"You've been training all year for this," he said, in a taut, authoritative tone, the kind you would expect from a former university team rower. "Keep the breath even. Keep the eyes open and straight ahead. That's it. It's boring."

As is traditional, organizers fix dragon heads and tails on the race boats, whose sides are painted with scales. An official also dotted the irises of a dragon head in a ceremony to "wake the dragon."

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