From Pretender to Contender

Waking up at 4 AM in the morning is nothing new to me, but waking up at 4 AM and seeing my wife armed with a black, 44 inch, carbon fiber paddle in her hand was, to say the least, a shock.

It was the weekend of the 2007 Long Beach Dragon Boat Competition, and we were on track for a 6:30 AM flight out of Oakland to Long Beach. However, we weren’t alone; Janet and Jessie were on the same flight.  And though partially frozen by San Francisco’s omnipresent morning fog, this threesome was as stoked for this event as I was after a couple of quad shot espressos.

I knew my wife was confident, but seeing her in her competitive stance was something new and captivating.  She had been practicing for a year, and post the 2007 Redwood City Dragon Boat Competition, she now focused on the 2007 Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival, which drew competitors from all over the west coast.  This particular year even attracted teams from Taipei, Taiwan (Taipei Fire Department Team) and Tianjin, China (Tianjin College All-Star Team).  Net, net, 52 local teams and 25 out of town teams were reaching for gold.  Equipped with tactical life vests, carbon fiber paddles, and bullet-proof dragon embossed shirts, Bev, Janet, and Jessie were ready for battle—and so was their team, the Kaiser Permanente (KP) Dragon Healers.

The KP Dragon Healers a relatively new team, with a new coach, and with new paddlers from different facets of the Northern California Kaiser Permanente.  Spearheading this rebel band were their coaches and captains, Kathy and Ross Britt, Brian Soo, and Lawrence Pang, people at the time, I only knew by name.

I, myself, was an outsider, related to the Kaiser family by marriage.  My wife had been trying to convince me for two years to join, and in 2007, I knew as much about dragon boat technique and timing as my wife did about Capital Asset Pricing Models and Collateralized Mortgage Obligations. However, what I did know is that for the past year she and her teammates woke up every Saturday morning at 8 AM to tackle the Bay Area equivalent of Lake Loch Ness, that is, Lake Merced, which also harbors its own monsters.

During that time, I often asked myself, “Who are these people, drawn to this savory, effervescent marsh called Lake Merced?”  Luckily for me, I was about to find out.  When our plane landed in Long Beach that morning, we were going to have a tight schedule, and renowned for her organizational skills, Bev set up our itinerary as follows:

4:00 AM Wake up
4:30 AM Janet Arrives
4:45 AM Drive to OAK
5:30 AM Meet up with Jessie at gate
6:30 AM Flight departs
7:45 AM Flight lands
8:15 AM Get rental car
8:45 AM Drive to Marine Stadium
9:00 AM First Race

In contrast to the competitive thrill that had taken over my wife and her team mates, I was sleepy, lethargic, and, I admit wrongly, apathetic.  In preparation of this weekend’s event, I was equally armed with my laptop and Robert Rubin’s autobiography, In an Uncertain World.  Though it was incredibly hot that day, I had no idea how enjoyable competition would be.  Little did I know that my view on Dragon Boat racing was about to change and my first lesson was about to begin.

Straight from the airport, we sped toward Marine Stadium for the first race.  We forwent stopping by the hotel to settle in, and went straight to battle.  With people from all over the West Coast and beyond, the raceway was packed with competitors, vendors, and officials.  Smartly uniformed teams, corporate sponsorships items, and dragon boat regalia adorned the beach front.  Admittedly, the event was far more organized and attended than I expected, or even fathomed.  It was then that I realized that dragon boat was not just a sport, but a sporting lifestyle.  That being lesson one, I now started to understand why Bev, Janet, and Jessie were so stoked. 

But knowing is never the same as doing, and as others marched around with matching PFDs and uniforms, I started to feel out of place with a hardcover book in hand.  To fix this, I pretended to be part of the team by carrying Bev’s paddle around when she was between races, and, eventually, becoming the ultimate impersonator by taking a picture in her PFD, with a paddle in one hand, and a book in the other.  Unfortunately, I was simply a pretender and not contender.

“Box-of-Fun,” “timing issues,” and “reaching out,” were words I occasionally heard from Bev and Janet, but to me at the time had marginal meaning.  With the 2007 Long Beach Dragon Boat Competition, I was about to see theory and action put together.  With 10 race pieces on the docket that weekend, the KP Dragon Healers were definitely going to put on a performance; moreover, with over 100 combined races, this event was definitely going to be a learning experience.

As soon as we arrived at the tent I heard, “Bev, Janet, Jessie, boat up!”  That was the first time, but not the last time, I heard Ross’ dragon boat commands.  As they disappeared to the marshalling area, another, but different, challenge came into my view— “How do I tackle the cornucopia of food, energy bars, and Gatorade that were spread out on our team’s buffet table?”  I realized that competing with the team wasn’t always demanding on the body.  The team will, kindly, rejuvenate you for the next race.  More importantly, I learned that the team took care of you, and cared about you.  Even though I was an outsider, I met a lot of great people that day and they made me feel welcomed.  More important than the competition, I learned that the team was a community, and camaraderie was its gold medal.  That was lesson 2.

There were obviously more experienced, better conditioned teams with better uniforms, but, I believe, the KP Dragon Healers had the edge.  Following their win in the Redwood City competition, the team’s spirit was high.  Though the blazing sun and multiple 500 meter race pieces can easily suck a person’s energy dry, the team persevered and applied the same spirit into each race.  Other competitors had advantages over the team, but it wasn’t enough to overpower the drive this young team, and its young coaches, had.  I witnessed, first hand, that the paddlers and coaches simply believed in themselves.  Throughout the year, there were many hurdles in the team’s way, but it didn’t stop them from reaching for the gold.  Obstacles that didn’t stop them from believing.  That was lesson 3.

The trifecta of lessons I learned that day, and the thrill of competition, made my view of dragon boat competition do a complete 180.  I realized that this was something to be part of, and something I would participate in.  In my opinion, I was witnessing an excellent team in an awesome sport, and while I was trying to figure out how to schedule dragon boat practice into my life, the magic happened. 

Mixing hard work, team work, and belief is a potent formula to creating magic, and it happened in race 2, heat 40 of the corporate division.  After that race, the team was stoked and energized.  The customary confusion after the race discussing the timing, the feel of the boat, and the overall experience, was abruptly silenced when Ross made an announcement.  As the team collected itself, he calmly said that the team took first, but wanted to confirm it with the judges.  I myself felt the anxiety with the team.  The team was a bit perplexed, but optimistic.  It was a tight race.  When the results were up, the KP Dragon Healers took first!! it was the magical race of the festival, which Ross talks about every race weekend.

The team exploded.  Cheers, hugs, and hurrahs were abundant.  More importantly, they exceeded their own expectations of not only getting race experience and having fun, but taking first from the other seasoned teams.  The moment was immortalized in pictures, as the elated paddlers baptized their coaches, and each other, with celebratory water.   

One year later, I was back on the same flight to Long Beach, renting from the same car company, and heading in the same direction toward the 2008 Long Beach Dragon Boat Competition.  I brought with me the same laptop containing the picture of last year’s memorable moment, but left the book at home because I didn’t have time to read.  This year I was in the water heading toward the start line.  This year I had a chance to experience that magic. This year I stopped being a pretender, because this year I was a KP Dragon Healer!!