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Dragon boating: A love affair with a sport less played

MANILA, Philippines - When people ask what are the things that I enjoy, my immediate answer would always be dragon boat. Then the influx of questions would follow: "Is that (demonstrates a rowing motion)?" "What's that?" "Are you part of the national team?" "How do you do it?" "Is that the one from the (insert sports drink name here) billboard/commercial?"

Whenever I walk around the mall or train station carrying my paddle bag, I get stares from people wondering what my big orange paddle case contains. One little girl even went up to me in the mall and actually asked me what was in my bag. (I told her of course!)

Outside of the dragon boat federation teams and friends of the people who compete in the sport, it is what you can call a sport less played. In a country where ball sports, running and cycling are more dominant, very few people actually know about other sports like dragon boat.

I came to know about the sport in 2011, whilst celebrating my 22nd birthday in Boracay. I found out that the International Dragon Boat competition was being held there and had a chance to see dear college friends who were based abroad. Visiting the race site was a spectacle - tents filled with teams who were tired and resting, or waiting for their next race. Men with their 6-pack abs and women with very muscular arms. 

My college friend introduced me to his team that time - the dragon boat team of my alma mater. I gained a new set of acquaintances during that brief stint in Boracay. But it wasn’t until 2012 that my love affair started.

Dragon boat History

Dragon boat is a sport that originated in China in medieval times. It started as a training for naval warfare and became an exhibition sport somewhere around 550 AD. In the Philippines, the sport started around 1986 with “the 118-year-old Manila Boat Club (MBC). In 1986, some of its members, including Ramos, were invited by Hong Kong and Macau’s respective tourist associations to compete in their cities’ annual dragon boat festivals. A show of goodwill from Hong Kong donating a dragon boat for the Philippine team became the start of a new sport in the country”

The sport came to be more recognized in the Philippines, when our Philippine Team won 5 gold medals and 2 silver medals in the 10th International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Tampa Bay, Florida. The win was controversial because the team was denied recognition by the Philippine Olympic Committee and financial support by the Philippine Sports Commission.

Apart from that, the sport also gained popularity because of a local energy drink that started featuring it in their sports advocacy.

A personal awakening

The team prays together before the 2013 Tanauan Dragonboat Race. The author has a purple bandana around her neck.

Photo by Jerome de Leon

In 2012, I come across one person I met during that summer and he introduced me to another set of friends, one of which who invited me to try the sport. During that time, I was struggling to lose weight as I had come to reach a very depressing number. I tried the sport on a very sunny weekend in May. 

Initially, it was a love-hate relationship as the training is physically demanding, but when I got to know more of what it has to offer for me (by losing 10 pounds in two months and playing in the name of my alma mater), I was hooked.

Being with students while being in the work force was quite hard as we had cultural differences already, thus I opted switched to another team - the one with the earliest training schedule I could find: Philippine Dragonboat Rowing Team, or PDRT Fireblades as they are known. My love affair with the sport continued. I learned the best things I can ever learn about the sport with my new team. Here are a few:

Dragon boat training and what makes it so hard

The initial apprehension of any newbie was always the time. My team’s call time is at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays and we go into training for an hour or so. On weekends, I had to sleep earlier than others as our training was at 7:00 a.m. Coming from Marikina, I always had to leave at 3:30 a.m. for weekdays and 5:30 a.m. for weekends.

Dragon boat and the preconceived judgment

The second apprehension is the misconception about the sport: people think only the fittest of them all can be engaged in rowing. They also think they need to be able to know how to swim before they can try rowing. The first is actually something that dragon boat helps you get - the intensity and progression of the training programs enable you to achieve quality fitness (the one with toned muscles, not the one you get from starving yourself). 

The second, is well, a big misconception. Although it is important that you know how to swim just in case the boat capsizes, life vests are always available for training use. One more thing is that you will eventually get free swimming lessons - some team trainings are aimed for swimming lessons (not in Manila Bay but instead in pools).

Dragon boat is not for the faint of heart nor for the maarte, either

As the sport initially requires your will power to get up early in the morning and go to Manila Bay, you are posed with risks of getting mugged or into a vehicular accident if you are a commuter.

Manila Bay is another story, as all the germs you could ever imagine are present in the murky waters of the bay. (I highly thank taking up a major that allowed me to have more tolerance for places like these.)

Rowing out into the open waters of Manila bay is already a hazard: you have a chance of a wave coming in and capsizing your boat, you have the chance of getting amoebiasis (or a skin disease from it). There are so many unforeseeable things that might happen while rowing.

While on the boat, you will constantly be shouted at, reprimanded and taught about the proper form and technique for rowing. Thus, if you are a cry baby (like me!) or someone who cannot take criticism, the only solution to survive in a team is to suck it up and paddle harder. If you choose to be defeated by personal and external evils, you will not survive in the sport.

Dragon boat is like a drug, you will get hooked, you will try to let go of it, but your body will end up looking for it.

After being able to race internationally with my former team, I decided to let go of the sport. After all, I was able to compete internationally already and I encountered a few personal issues. From January 2013-April 2013, I stopped rowing and found myself in swimming and running. However, every time I touched the water in the pool, I would always think about Manila Bay. That was the time that I decided I would join my new (and current) team.

It also applies to training. Whenever you skip training, your body will always look for the intensity of the training that only dragon boat can give you. Thus, you will keep on coming back to it even if you say you want to stop.

Dragon boat will open a whole new world for you

Being on a team has its ups and downs: it’s like being in another family where you have brothers and sisters you get along with, uncles and aunts that you are not too comfortable with and cousins that you share your deepest, darkest secrets with.

It will open a new kind of camaraderie for you, because being on a team requires you to work on moving together rather than moving only by yourself. You will have to understand and have patience with people who do not give a rat’s ass about your feelings because they think it’s proper. You will also end up loving some people more than others.

Apart from that, you will be entitled to traveling, as dragon boat races are not concentrated in Manila Bay all the time. Throughout the year, there are many local and international races that teams can opt to compete in. After the competition, may it be a victory or a defeat, teams usually spend a couple more hours or days in these areas and explore what the place has to offer. My team mate calls it “dragon boat induced travels.”

And the whole new world doesn’t stop there. Generally, paddlers become more athletic and also explore other sports like cycling, mountaineering and even surfing.

Dragon boat will make you understand the value of time

Dragon boat races usually range from 200 meters to 500 meters only. Therefore, a race can be over in a minute or two. You will understand the value of time, as when you are the one sitting in a boat and paddling for your life, it will be the longest few minutes of your life. To my personal understanding, we waste countless minutes doing nothing at all so why not push ourselves to give the best effort in those few minutes of the race?

Dragon boat will teach you that it’s not about the distance, but it’s the dedication you put into training

Raab Hizon, one of my former teammates, wrote this on Facebook: “In dragonboat, I learned that a heat is more than just that 300m--it is the kilometer stretches we log in months beforehand. The last few meters are just the victory lap. #training” and that is exactly how it is with the sport. 

Dragon boat rowing is a learned sport. You don’t necessarily need to be an athlete to become a paddler. Dedication is needed in dragon boat training to learn and improve the form and technique, just like any other sport. Those teams who have of course trained harder come out as victors in the races.

My love affair for the sport is purely out of passion for it. I am madly, passionately in love with this sport that I do everything I can (within reason) for me to be able to play it. My personal hope for our sport, is that one day, more people will fall in love with it like I (and all the paddlers) do. - Rappler.com

Should you want to try it, we’re always looking for new members to join us in our team! Visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/PDRT-Fireblades for more details.