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Dragon riders

To the beat of a big drum, rowers are propelling traditional dragon boats down the Oklahoma River.

Heide Brandes July 27th, 2011

The legend began in China more than 2,000 years ago.

In protest to the Chu Dynasty, Chinese poet and scholar Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi Lo River. But so beloved was he by the local population, fishermen piled into boats and rowed furiously in tandem to try to save him. They did not succeed, but the sport of dragon boating was born.

Centuries later, Oklahomans are piling 10 to 20 rowers thick to compete or learn dragon boat racing on the Oklahoma River.

“Dragon boat racing is arguably the fastest-growing paddle sport going. I’ve been paddling my whole life, but even people with no athletic experience on the water can learn to work as a team and get in the boat within 15 minutes,” said Aasim Saleh, program director for the Chickasaw Nation RiverSport Youth Canoe and Kayak League.

Dragon boats are long and slender in the middle, and the 20-person boats are as long as a metro city bus. An experienced paddler stands at the back, acting as the dragon’s tail to steer the craft. At the front, a dragon’s head snarls as a designated drummer pounds out the heartbeat of the beast.

The others on the boat move in unison, the paddles slicing through the water like giant wings.

Many of the boats used in the U.S. are made of wood or synthetic fiber, but Saleh said the design of the boat itself hasn’t changed in centuries.

“You have a person in the back who steers,” he said. “Everyone then chooses someone to be at the front of the boat on the big drum to beat a rhythm. We have the big round, wooden and tanned skin drums, which in itself helps all 10 or 20 people work as a team. The drums keep the rhythm of the paddlers.”

Oklahoma RiverSport officially purchased the dragon boats three years ago, but the popularity of the sport has increased in the past year with corporate team-building exercises and youth programs. Even senior citizens are enjoying the ride.

“Because the sport is so simple, yet so effective for strength and fitness, anyone can do it,” Saleh said. “People who try it, love it.”

Even companies are getting their feet wet with corporate dragon boating events and teams. According to Sarah Laurent, team building coordinator for RiverSport, dragon boats offer  corporate and youth teamwork experience.

“We have a program called Challenge the Dragon, which companies can enroll their employees to learn dragon boating,” Laurent said. “They learn first how to paddle on land, choose a team name and then learn a chant. Once they are on the water, we go through drills and practice. At the end, they race each other.”

Laurent said the exercise helps employees learn to work together.

“The main thing you learn is that if you don’t work together, you don’t go anywhere,” she said. “Dragon boating is becoming the most popular program we have for corporate team-building here.”

There is also a dragon boating league for teams interested in competing. The next season beings Aug. 22.

In competitions, teams race in straight lanes for an average time of 3-6 minutes. Teams work to have all 20 paddlers working at the fastest possible speed with welltimed strokes of the blade hitting the water in unison. Saleh said the best of the best will be on display this fall during the Dragon Boat National Championship held on the Oklahoma River.

The event will be held during the Oklahoma Regatta Festival, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, which will also feature events for youth, collegiate teams and corporate teams.

Photos by Mark Hancock

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