A few months back my friend Alicia set me up on an “internet blind date” with her friend Matt. Her reasoning being that Matt and I were practically the same person living on opposite sides of the country. He reps Portland, Oregon, the hipster city of the west coast. While I hold it down in Somerville, Massachusetts, the hipster city of the east. We share a love of beer, sports related charity events, being busy forever, basketball and doing random things that no one has ever heard about before.
When I asked Alicia how she knew Matt, her response of “he asked me to join his dragon boat team” was enough for me to confirm her reasoning and message Matt if only to find out what this “dragon boat team” thing is all about. Turns out, this Olympic sport has been around for 2,000 years. I couldn’t find any hard data as to how many teams there are in the United States, but there are 40 teams in the Portland area alone. So, let’s just say there are 2,000 dragon boat teams in the United States and 378,000 worldwide. Matt’s team, Team Fushion, has roughly 45-50 paddlers which means, by my estimation, there are 18,900,000 international paddlers! Only some of that is speculation/completely wrong. Most teams train three times a week, year round through all types of weather. This might seem excessive for an occasional two minute race, but how many people get to do what they love three times a week? This is why he and I chatted about his passion for dragon boating.
We’d had this interview in the works for a while, but Matt was too busy off winning medals with his dragon boat team, Team Fusion – a name which Matt loves because “it connotes teamwork and togetherness – both traits key to paddling!” Last weekend, he won his first gold medal at the World Beat Festival in Salem, Oregon. The weekend prior Team Fushion won the bronze at the largest dragon boat festival in North America where they raced against teams from Oregon, Washington and Canada. For Matt, winning, while enjoyable, is secondary to his participation. It’s rare that someone finds an activity that meets all their needs, but dragon boat racing is just that for him.
Matt joined Team Fusion in 2013 after moving back to his hometown of Portland from Seattle. He had spent a little over a year working for the University of Washington Alumni Association when he decided that he wanted to return home. One of the things Matt has always loved about his hometown is how easy it is to escape the big city feel by venturing out to the mountains or coast. He remains an avid hiker and cyclist, but when he had returned to Portland, he was dealing with a foot injury from running that prohibited him from participating in those activities.
After seeing a Facebook post from a friend about how much she enjoyed dragon boat racing, he asked to join her team. At first he was concerned that his size would be seen as a disadvantage, but his friend assured him that there was a spot for him as stronger guys had that ability to pull more water. (I would just like to point out that Matt lost 100lbs through working hard and changing his eating habits and managed to keep that weight off for a few years now. Go Matt!)
Similar to any large rowing vessel, there are a few different positions on the dragon boat. The caller stands at the front of the boat calling out inductions for the paddlers. The tiller stands at the back of the boat and steers using a longer oar. Some boats also have a drummer who works in tandem with the caller to keep the paddlers in sync and serve as a cheerleader. Matt’s team has never had a drummer and he doesn’t see the point in adding one now as it can be too distracting during races. They’re doing just find without one.
In addition to his role as a paddler, Matt is also one of a handful of council members for Team Fusion working alongside the team captain to ensure operations are running smoothly and help with any decision making. There are ways for everyone on the team to have their voices heard. “We also have a rotating group of ambassadors who act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the council in a way, they talk with paddlers, solicit their feedback and let us in the council know how that’s going at each monthly council meeting.” Matt’s teammates are the thing he loves most about being a part of Team Fusion. “[We are] very, very, very close. We hang out after practice, on weekends, before and after races, you name it. It’s a really tight-knit group, and there’s a lot of camaraderie among the paddlers.” Social sports have always been a great way to meet people and make friends if you’re finding yourself in a new city or in limbo as friends have moved on to different life phases.
Dragon boating may look easy on the surface, but Matt find that he is still learning new methods or improving upon skills that he already has learned. The intricacies of the sport continue to be a draw for him. “I love that there’s so much to master. Whether it’s stabbing the paddle into the water, pulling it back, returning and starting the whole stroke over again, using your legs, engaging your core, or keeping your head still, there’s always something to learn.”
Matt’s passion and enthusiasm for dragon boat racing was enough to convince me to seek it out myself. Unfortunately, since he lives 3,000 miles away he could not demonstrate his love of the sport or teach me a few things. Instead I participated in a free clinic on the Charles River with Dragon Boat Club Boston.
The first part of the clinic focused on paddling form and drilling the rules into our head. The number one rule: Never stand up on a dragon boat! (Spoiler Alert: No one ever did.) The paddle were much shorter than I anticipated. The hand thats on the inside of the boat is still responsible for the t grip, but you’re holding the paddle right at the top of the blade and digging in with each stroke. The required paddling is completely different than any other variant of rowing, kayaking or canoeing I had either learned how to do correctly or made up on my own. The method used by DBCB is more explosive relying on quick, short strokes. Matt’s team uses a slower, more powerful stroke propelling the boat at a faster rate because they’re pulling more water.
You really do use your body with each stroke. Since this is a more learn by doing activity all you really need to know is that your body is twisted towards the water in an A shape and your obliques will kill for the next week. And if you have short arms, you are going to feel like each stroke is going to pull you face first into the water. Be prepared to get in to it, but do not ever stand up!
Our group was composed of people of all ages, sizes, athletic abilities and ethnicities. One woman had been studying up on the sport and couldn’t wait to join a 40+ team, but was a little nervous about going in without any experience due to their overly competitive nature.
We all managed to catch on pretty quickly. We could follow the short list of commands without a problem, although I struggled with the timing – I may have been a little too eager – I was there to win! We became faster and more fluid with each race, but just as we really started to get the hang of it, it was time to return to the dock for a quick debrief about what everyone enjoyed about the day. Most people agreed that being out on the Charles on such a beautiful day was fantastic, but the focus on teamwork brought in the most votes. I have to agree. You do learn by doing, but you also need to solicit tips from experienced paddlers in order to grow. One of the seasoned vets who was out in the boat with us said that when he first started, he sucked, but he loved it enough to stay with it and has improved greatly over time. It’s just a perfect reminder that we’re not always going to immediately be great at whatever it is that we want to do. That while this is a competitive sport, it’s so much more to many of the people involved. It’s an opportunity to meet new people, acquire new skills and be a part of something truly unique.
This is all part of Matt’s desire to lead an “epic and meaningful life.” In the short time that I have been acquainted with him, he has orchestrated creative ways to help his community. “I want to have a positive impact on the communities in which I find myself. I want to make a difference, leave me mark and be a positive influence.”
Dragon Boat Club Boston hosts free clinics for new paddlers every few years throughout the season. Check out their Facebook page for more information.