Dragon boat paddling 'the ultimate team sport'Dragon boat seating is a science to Megan Kress. The paddlers she coaches have assigned seats specifically chosen to enhance a boat’s speed while carrying 20 paddlers, a steersperson and a drummer.
By: Rick Lubbers, Duluth News Tribune
Dragon boat seating is a science to Megan Kress.
The paddlers she coaches have assigned seats specifically chosen to enhance a boat’s speed while carrying 20 paddlers, a steersperson and a drummer.
“It’s the ultimate team sport,” she said Thursday afternoon, on the eve of the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival at Superior’s Barkers Island. “A lot of teams have superstars. Here there is zero status. Every seat has a defined role. There are different body types and shapes and sizes that fit better in certain areas.”
Kress, of Duluth, lent her expertise to Team USA at the 11th World Dragon Boat Racing Championship held July 23-28 in Szeged, Hungary. Among her myriad duties as an assistant coach for the women’s senior A squad (paddlers aged 40 years old and up), Kress helped determine the roles for the squad’s 25 athletes. At the last world championships two years ago, that team did not place against the world’s finest dragon boat teams, but this year Team USA claimed either second or third in each of four events. Canada swept all four.
And while it was an invaluable learning experience for Kress, her coaching debut at the international level highlighted several similarities between top-tier paddlers and the community competitors taking part in this weekend’s races.
“What I was not surprised about but was glad to see is that people are the same, whether you’re an elite paddler and chosen for Team USA, or you’re here with your club crew,” she said. “Team dynamics are the same. You always have the same kind of personalities.”
There will be a lot of personalities — more than 2,000 — crammed into dragon boats this weekend. There are approximately 100 teams registered, nearly the same as last year but up substantially from two years ago, according to race director Craig Lincoln of Duluth.
The festival’s opening ceremony begins today at 6:30 p.m. and fireworks are slated for 8:50 p.m. Heat races start Saturday at 8 a.m. and continue every 10 minutes until approximately 5 p.m. The finals are scheduled for 6 p.m. There will be several family-oriented activities to sample during the day, including a craft fair, musical acts and a magic show. Go to lakesuperiordragons.com for more information.
Hosted by Superior and Duluth rotary clubs, the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival raises money for the rotary clubs and the festival’s charitable partner, the Essentia Health Foundation. This year’s goal is $97,000.
The only major change this year is the shortened race distance of 350 meters, down from 400 meters in past events. Lincoln said the change is aimed at creating a safer and less arduous event for community paddlers.
If Lincoln wasn’t busy with race day operations, he’d be in a dragon boat himself. His squad, Blue Water Team Surge (formerly the Invincibles) consists of folks from the Duluth Boat Club’s paddling program. Kress will be the steersperson when she’s not coaching a handful of other teams.
“We have kind of a different team than a lot of other competitive teams,” Lincoln said of the crew that made the finals last year after recent stints in the top 12 and top six. “We don’t actually recruit athletes. We say this is what we’re about: sportsmanship, commitment to people and practicing. And if you can agree with that, join us.
“It’s come together really well; they’re paddling really well. It’s an odd boat because quite often teams will recruit 12 men and then fill the rest in with women (each team must have at least eight women paddlers). Because of the way we recruit, I think we only have three or four men paddling. You can call that a disadvantage, but they will be right up there with everybody else. The goal is to medal, but we’ve got some tougher competition this year.”
That includes a couple of upper-tier squads from Chicago — one of which boasts a couple of national titles —and the always competitive Thunder Bay teams.
It’s a safe bet those crews will have strict seat assignments, too.
Kress said she’s been accused of over-coaching —a charge to which she willingly pleads guilty. She doesn’t know any other way.
“I spend hours on spreadsheets, balancing left and right,” she said. “Finding the littlest weight difference between left and right. In certain conditions and for certain distances, you want the weight to kind of run downhill. You want that boat to sort of get up.”
And while she is exacting about where her paddlers sit on community crews, she significantly raises the bar on squads that paddle together year-round.
“A lot of people think you put the bad paddlers in the back,” Kress said, “but you don’t, it’s the hardest spot in the boat. You actually want your best paddlers back there, your strongest. It’s hard to catch water, it’s hard to see what’s happening up front. Just by the nature of being in the back of the boat, you feel a little disconnected because your leadership tends to be up front — your drummer and your first six paddlers in the first three rows. They are setting the rhythm. So you have to be really mentally tough and really understand the water back there.”
But her coaching approach is identical for all teams and skill levels.
“People all want to succeed and perform well, and they should be treated the same and they should be treated like national athletes,” Kress said. “You don’t have to be 115 pounds and have zero percent body fat. I think being an athlete is more mental than physical at times — especially in this sport. There are a lot of distractions. Twenty-two people in a boat, there’s a lot of personalities.”
And a lot of assigned seats.
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 723-5317. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.