Features

Year of the dragon

"Year of the dragon" Continued...

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

Four boats pushed off and lined up in the distance. Within a lake-slicing minute, the race was over. When hundredths of seconds separate the competitors, discerning the winner is hard from the shoreline. For the paddlers inside the boats, it is virtually impossible.

Back on shore, Schmidt's teammate Ana Arostegui scanned the scoreboard worriedly. She took up dragon boating first, and an initially skeptical Schmidt quickly got hooked later. Deep Purple aimed for a killer 45 seconds in their race. After a bumpy start, they clocked 50:32, just enough to win fifth and last place in the following 200-meter championship final.

"What happened?" a Red Hot teammate asked. "You guys were so fast."

"People were faster," Arostegui said, shrugging. It was a close call in a regatta filled with East Coast dragon boat festival winners. Many are corporate teams, with names like Merrill Dragons and GSK Spitzfire, and some have all Asian-American lineups. In the next 400-meter qualifier, DC did better, capitalizing on its endurance.

Between the qualifiers and championship races, the teams had calming lulls. Paddlers and their families relaxed on folding chairs and benches, enjoying the camaraderie that drew them to the sport. Grills sizzled with meat, a DJ pumped tunes to the crowd, and an Elvis impersonator took up watch near a pink '50s Cadillac meant to raise breast cancer awareness.

At DC's camp, teammates buzzed over their picnic table, snacking on grapes, apples, and granola bars. Prunier, 24, is the team's bespectacled youngest member and works at Lockheed Martin. His sniffles under control, he hovered over other paddlers, chiding them to stick to "water-based food" when they reached for chips or hot dogs. Later he settled down with a sci-fi novel about Hamlet undesirably haunting an attic.

Between the power snacks, the DC Dragons reflected on their chosen sport's attraction. Anyone can do it, they said: Seamless teamwork propels the boat faster than sheer power; any discord and the paddles clash. "You start out very clumsy and totally self-absorbed," explained Deep Purple's Toàn Pham, an email administrator at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). He was there with his wife and little daughters. "You only know your own space . . . then you graduate and feel the rest of the boat."

Paul Bolding, a muscular 6-foot-1 former high-school football player, wondered at something else: the women's stamina. "I ain't gonna fake," the 35-year-old told WORLD, shaking his head. "There'd be times when I'd be in the boat and I'd feel like quitting. Then I'd look up and see these women." Later, as Go Pink's cancer survivors paddled their final race, he climbed down to a tree at the water's edge and cheered the loudest. The women won gold and silver medals.

But first, Deep Purple had to tackle its own championship races. As the marshaling call went out, silver-haired teammate Ken King, 54, groaned. "It's nothing but nerves right now," he said, his paddle in grip. "My stomach's in knots. No pressure, but you have to win if you want to go to Malaysia."

In the end, the team placed second in the 200 meters, third in the 400. A pleased Schmidt praised his team. The day did not bring the all-out wins Deep Purple wanted, but the team snagged enough points for Malaysia next year. As for that afternoon, the sun was finally shining, and a tray of hitherto forbidden brownies beckoned on the picnic table.

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