by Grant Moser
Cathedral Village resident Sarah West, 76, was unsure if she should try out for a seat on Team USA’s senior Dragon Boat racing team. She shouldn’t have worried. Her time in the one-person outrigger trials was fast enough to earn her a spot on the senior’s Division C team (over 60) and an invitation to Hungary for the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships two months ago.
West has been racing Dragon Boats for 12 years, ever since the day a friend of hers brought her along to see one of her practices. West grew up on the Maine coast and was comfortable in a boat but had never raced competitively before. She participated in the practice and immediately joined the club, the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix. But team racing is not as easy as it might sound.
“It takes about a year to learn how to paddle correctly. And then you still have to work at it,” she explained. “You need to be putting your paddles in the water at the same instant, at the same angle; and coming out at the same instant, the same angle as everyone else. And keeping the same pace. You have to concentrate and let go of all the things that are on your mind weighing you down. I come home feeling quite relaxed and tired.”
Being in the same frame of mind as everyone else on the boat is important, and that’s why West’s Senior Division C team found themselves at a disadvantage immediately. Because this was the first time a Division C had been allowed to compete in the championships, they had gotten a late start. They hadn’t had tryouts until May 1, and the team wasn’t set until June 1. Four members lived too far away to practice with the rest of the team in Philadelphia before arriving in Hungary. And the powerhouses in this division, Canada and Australia, had been together almost a year by then.
Canada also carried with it the distinction of helping popularize Dragon Boat racing. It began gaining in popularity in Western Canada in the late 1990s when Dr. Don MacKenzie went against conventional wisdom and told his post-surgical breast cancer patients to take up the sport. Most breast cancer patients were instructed not to participate in physical therapy for fear of complications with swelling. Activities that included lifting with the arms or repetitive upper body exercises were deemed out of bounds.
Instead, his patients that were rowing improved quicker than average and felt great. From there, breast cancer Dragon Boat racing teams sprang up across the country and then internationally. When West first joined her club, it was on the breast cancer survivor team, Against the Wind. Every four years, an international festival is held just for breast cancer survivors.
Dragon Boat racing is a strenuous sport. Originally a ceremonial activity in ancient China, the sport today consists of 20 paddlers in a 45-foot boat, with a steerer in the back with a long oar and a drummer up front to keep the pace. Paddlers are placed by who has the longest reach (they sit up front), who are the most powerful rowers (they sit in middle, referred to as the “engine room”) and who will give a strong push off the back of their paddles (they sit in the rear). Races vary from 200 meters (a dead-out sprint done in an average of one minute) to 2000 meters. (Good teams average 10 minutes.)
The Philadelphia Flying Phoenix club practices on the water Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week. They also are required to perform exercises on their own to promote cardiovascular fitness and strength training. In the winter they rent time at an indoor paddle pool in Bryn Mawr. The pool has boxes with benches inside for 25 people. The water goes around at a good rate, “like paddling upstream in a current,” West described.
Team USA arrived in Szeged, Hungary in July with a total of 282 people on the team. They had many divisions represented: youth (under 24), premier (the strongest of any age), Senior A (over 40), Senior B (over 50) and Senior C (over 60). West’s Senior C team consisted of 45 people, counting paddlers, drummers, steerers and the coach. In total, the university town of Szeged played host to teams from 33 countries from five continents at this year’s championships.
The night before the races there was a parade through town of all the teams. West remembers clearly when the Iranian men’s team rose. “Our governments tell us we’re enemies. One of them had an American flag on his shirt, then he raised a little American flag. Then someone else on the team raised a full-sized Iranian flag and someone else raised a full-sized American flag and waved them together. They made a point of making friends. In a setting like that, you get a chance to know people as people, not as stereotypes.”
Over the five day event, West’s Senior C team competed in the 2000, 500, and 200 meter races. The team came in third, behind Canada and Australia. “We were not on the same level as them,” West said. “But we made them work hard. I was proud of what we did.” She stood on the medal stand four times, for all three women’s events and the mixed 500.
Team USA had success overall in Hungary, winning 2 gold medals (for the Senior A mixed 1000 and the Premier mixed 1000), 12 silvers, and 17 bronze medals.
At the end of the games, the custom was to trade shirts between teams. West was approached by some Chinese members for one of her shirts. Again, she was moved that people from a country that we were taught to regard as “an enemy” wanted a shirt from the USA. She described the sportsmanship present during the whole time as “high caliber.” The next world championships are in 2015 in Canada.
In the meantime, West continues to stay active in Philadelphia Flying Phoenix. She is also helping prepare for the upcoming Dragon Boat festival in Philadelphia on Oct. 5.
West grew up in Boston and moved to Mt. Airy in 1963. She taught math and science for 40 years at local schools such as Springside, Temple University, and Germantown Friends School. She is also a Trail Ambassador for the Friends of the Wissahickon. She moved to Cathedral Village to “rest” in 2004. For more information on the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix Dragon Boat Club, visit philadelphiaflyingphoenix.org.