Saturday proved to be the perfect day for a boat race, a dragon boat race that is.
Blue skies above and blue water below welcomed racers back to Glenmore Reservoir for the Calgary Dragon Boat Race and Festival after a three year hiatus due to the pandemic.
And between the exuberant cries of “paddles up,” and the crying and tears of competitors finally having the chance to compete again, it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t long waiting the return of the festival.
“Paddles up! This is awesome,” said Danny Ng, co-chair for the Calgary Dragonboat Society.
Ng said that the sport had grown from its roots—and although heavily supported and made possible by volunteers from Calgary’s Chinese community—this year included individuals from all of Calgary’s communities and beyond. He pointed to the teams coming from the United States to compete, and even as far abroad as Egypt.
“This is this is now a premier water sport event in Calgary, recognized by Western Canada, Canadians, the United States—we got friends from all over the world,” he said.
The festival took place on August 5 through 7.
Festival made possible from community support
The return of the races were also important for Calgary’s corporations and community groups, said Ng.
“Oh it’s huge, huge,” he said.
“The dragon boats crosses all lines, it doesn’t matter who you work for it, it crosses all lines of people.”
The festival, like many in Calgary, faced the challenge of getting sufficient volunteers to operate. Ng said that they were able to reach out to youth groups, and immediately got the volunteers they needed.
“It’s always a challenge to get volunteers, but when we went to the Chinatown community and reached out to the youth, we got a whack of interest, so so that helped a lot,” said Ng.
“At the beginning people were hesitant because they don’t know if the festival was on, or, the pandemic, all that kind of stuff. But we’re happy it’s on, we had to plant the stake in the ground and say ‘let’s do it, right, and here we are.”
Going forward, the Dragonboat Society is aiming to get more of that youth involvement.
“So now we’re going to nurture that,” said Ng.
“We are giving them a taste, a volunteered taste of the paddling, and then hopefully they’ll create a team and get others,” he said.
A complete list of teams and results from the dragon boat races this year is available on calgarydragonboatsociety.com.
Breast cancer survivors hold emotional return to racing
Among the teams anticipating the return to racing were breast cancer survivors from Calgary and Edmonton, and joined this year by a team from Montana.
The teams, made up entirely of women who have battled the disease, were given their own commemorative race to honour survivors and remember those who died from cancer.
“This race has been three years waiting, and to do it in our hometown is really important because I have family members here, and the others have family members here,” said Terri Ross, president of Sistership Calgary.
“The fact that we could have women come from Montana, Breast Friends always comes to support us, it’s just such a wonderful way for us to show people that we’re living in wellness and we’re strong, and we just just are embracing life,” she said.
“We’re just so thankful to be able to do this and experience that it’s empowering.”
The races were followed by a ceremony where the paddlers were given roses to be thrown into the reservoir. Ross said that was a tradition that began over 30 years ago in Vancouver.
“It’s every single dragon boat festival, at every breast cancer race, the roses are given out and commemorate ourselves and those we’ve lost, and they’re placed in the water—we call them our petals on the water,” she said.
Workouts held by survivors during pandemic to prepare for races
Despite the festival being on hold throughout the pandemic, Ross said that the women would join together for zoom workouts to prepare. She said that as soon as they we’re able to, they started meeting in person to train as a team.
“We were having zoom workouts with our coach, which was so fun and so interesting because everybody’s sitting at home in their basement or their living room—one girl was using wine bottles as weights,” she said.
“We were at the Y working out getting ready and getting prepared, just so eager to get out and race together.”
Post race Ng rushed to the dock to shake hands and give hugs to the women. With tears streaming down his face, he told LWC what it meant to him and to the teams.
“You just saw it now: Deidre, she just gave me the biggest hug in the world, and she said, ‘thank you for bringing it back, this means so much.’ Not just for them, but for all the participants because it’s a family event,” he said.
“For the breast cancer survivors, this is so powerful for them because it keeps them together, they work together, and as you heard, they lost 12 people this year and they remember them by putting them on the boat—so it’s just awesome.”
Survivor race also a competitive one
Ross said after the survivor race that it even though it was an emotional moment, it was also a competitive one.
“I think for the women this particular race is just so meaningful for them because it’s why we’re here, it’s so that we can get as strong and this is the way we get to show it,” said Ross.
“The playing field is completely even, and we have this really healthy competition between us,” she said.
“We all want to beat each other, but at the same time we’re supporting, because we’ve got people sitting in the Montana boat because they didn’t have enough people, so we just wanted to make sure this happened.”
The Sistership Phoenix team took top place in their race, with a time of 2:52.75, followed by Breast Friends Edmonton with 2:54.78. Silver Linings Montana took third place with 2:55.26. Sistership Synergy took fourth with a time of 3:01.17
Breast cancer survivors are invited to join the Sistership Dragon Boat Association at sistershipcalgary.com.