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The Beijing International Dragon Boating Team

The festival may be over, but dragon boating isn't. We find out what keeps paddlers coming back for more.

06·26·2012

The Beijing International Dragon Boating Team

The festival may be over, but dragon boating isn't. We find out what keeps paddlers coming back for more.

06·26·2012

After racing a dragon boat up and down Houhai, we spoke to members of the Beijing International Dragon Boating Team to find out more about one of China’s favorite festival sports. First, we interviewed Hemija.  Known on a first-name basis, he is an ambitious Dragon boat leader that keeps the team spirit of his paddlers fresh and lively. 

How many times per week does this team practice for dragon boat racing?

One time per week, for an hour and a half. The other team is more experienced than this one; they practice twice per week. We race 500 meters, but our goal is to reach 800 meters.

When did the team begin training?

Our training began in March, and it will finish this October because in winter, the lakes freeze, and it is too cold to paddle. In October, we might have another race, so we must prepare.

Dragon boat leader, Hemija, cheers his team on.

Do you have the same members each week on your team?

We usually have a new paddler join our team each week.

Who is the best team?

We are! We practice every week, so we are the best.

We next interviewed the ambitious Brendon, a boat paddler who’s been out on the water for over two decades.  

What brought you to Beijing? 

I’ve been coming to China since 1984, it’s kind of my thing.

How did you first get involved with dragon boating?

I’ve been paddling dragon boats since 1990. So when I was going to move here, I just sought out a team.

Can you give us any tips on how to succeed at dragon boat racing?

Timing and practice, practice, practice.

Our attention then shifted to boat paddler, Chris, an adventurous team member who enjoys his sport. 

What made you first interested in dragon boat racing?

Well, I’m not really interested in dragon boat racing; I do triathlon, kayaking, and all these crazy, adventurous sports––mainly triathlon races. I got roped into a corporate dragon boat team about three years ago in Hong Kong, and I really enjoyed that season. … It’s an amazing sport, and I have tremendous respect for the people who race. Just being able to get out in the water for an hour or so on a day like this is just fabulous. It’s  good exercise, a good workout, and I do a lot of legwork and upper body stuff. It makes a nice difference.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved?

I thought you were going to say have I picked up any girls! It’s quite a good place to do that actually, but I brought my own. There are quite a few learners here. One of the reasons why I like this organization is that they are very relaxed, they’ll take on anybody and if you are a novice, they will obviously teach you in the boat. We’ve got a young girl in our boat who is doing this for the first time, and the skipper was coaching her with the strokes. You don’t need to do that too often before you become efficient. I think my only tip is come along because no matter what your skill level is, you’ll have a great time and you will learn something new.

Are there any particular dos and don’ts when out racing?

It’s pretty straightforward. The obvious do is always listen to the skipper. If you jump into the boat without waiting for your turn (there is a protocol for getting into the boat), the boat will tip over. The second rule is more related to the strokes. Make sure you are coordinating with everyone else. The key to a successful team is coordination. It doesn’t matter how strong you are––if you’re all paddling differently, then the boat won’t go very fast. It’s a good sport from that perspective as well. It’s a sport that encourages teamwork. After the end of the hour, you feel like you have bonded with your team as you’re going through the same stuff together.

Then we spotted Jens, a German boat paddler who has managed to fit in business with pleasure in Beijing.

What brings you to Beijing?

A development cooperation project between the German government and the Chinese government.

What got you involved in dragon boating?   

Boat paddlers out on the field practicing on Houhai lake

I used to live in North-east Germany, and dragon boating is popular there. It’s a very public sport––they even have championships from time to time. But I do it for fun.

How many times per week do you usually practice?

I practice every Sunday here, but we also try and practice Thursday evenings. Although, [when we practice] depends on the availability of the people. Most of them are working so its difficult to arrange time for training.

Do you have any tips on the best technique a dragon boater can master?

Timing is most important to ensure that all paddles go into the water at the same time. The second most important thing is to lean forward so that you can use your body more sufficiently for paddling. The muscles of your shoulders can then lean into it.

What is it about dragon boating that makes you come back to practice?

It is a lot of fun. You can work out, its a nice team and there is a good mix of Chinese and international people coming here. And on a hot day like today, the best place to be is on the water. Thursday evenings are also pleasant––its absolutely wonderful.

We saved Dinny McMahon for last, an ambitious, hard-working dragon boat leader who has been pursuing his hobby on both an international and professional scale.    

Can you start of by giving us some background information regarding why you’re interested in dragon boat racing?  

Dinny McMahon leads a warm up exercise for the Dragon boat paddlers

The first time I went dragon boating was when I was a foreign student at Qinghai. The dragon boat festival was big there. The organizers approached universities and asked if we wanted to gather a team together. I went for it. Our team was a mix of Korean, Chinese, Australian and Czech Republic people, and we had a couple of Americans and Italians. We were terrible, absolutely terrible. We not only came last in every race, but we were still racing when everyone had reached the finish line. People were having a beer while we were still paddling out. But it was so much fun, our team was great, everyone else was so welcoming and it was great to be outdoors with fresh water.  When I moved to Beijing, I decided to open up this club around two seasons ago.

What tips can you give us for when we’re out dragon boat racing?

The most important thing is timing. Once everyone is out of sync, then its kind of all over. Other than that, its one of the most complicated, un-intuitive paddle strokes. It is not an intuitive natural stroke. It takes a while to get the hang of it.

What kind of activities do you do to ensure that your paddle stroke remains strong?

In a perfect world, I spend time on the treadmill and doing weights and what not, but ultimately, it’s mastering the technique. The whole idea is to use parts of your body which tire quickly: your leg and arm muscles, your torso and your shoulder muscles. The moment you start pulling with your biceps and triceps, that’s what’s going to make you tired more than anything else. Focus on the big muscles when you are paddling.

For a more personal dragon boat racing experience, see what happened when we tested the waters ourselves.