Dragon together

The water near Barker's Island was teeming with dragons Tuesday. They lunged, picking up speed as they prowled back and forth. On their backs, team members focused on paddling in unison.

The water near Barker's Island was teeming with dragons Tuesday. They lunged, picking up speed as they prowled back and forth. On their backs, team members focused on paddling in unison.

For many, these brief flights over water have become an annual event.

One team that has taken part in the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival every year is Team Stariha, also known as the Stariha family. The first year the races were held, they thought it would be a neat way to get relatives together, said member Andy Lisak. They knew they could get enough people for a 22-person team. Lisak's grandparents, George and Agnes Stariha, raised 17 children in Superior's North End. Since that first race in 2002, it's become a tradition.

"We tend to take it seriously, but it's more fun than anything," Lisak said.

"It's a family event," said Mary Stariha.


The team is an eclectic mix, ranging from 14-year-old Ben Wilander to Martin Berg, 62, a Superior native who has lived in California from more than 30 years.

And, Lisak said, "They're all jokers."

A few, it turns out, have been adopted into the family.

"They just invited me," said Julie Newman of Superior, who's been on the team for four years. "It's a great experience. It's great to be included."

Dan Bender, too, was fostered onto the team three years ago.

"It's a lot of fun," the Superior man said.

Tuesday, the team practiced various strokes -- the drawstroke, back paddle and feathering the boat, which is akin to spreading butter on toast with a paddle-size knife. Then, they took their places in the banana-shaped craft.

A dragon boat team is divided into sections. The first three seats belong to pacers who set the tempo. Behind them is the "engine room," eight members who provide power. At the back of the boat sit the rockets, high-endurance teammates whose job is more about finesse than strength. To complete the team, add one steersperson and a caller/drummer to sit facing the paddlers.


With a minimum of joking, the extended family settled into the 40-foot craft and pushed off. Minus their caller, Lisak's aunt Vicki Stariha who lives in the Twin Cities, they aimed the craft toward the Barker's Island bridge.

It was an eye-opening experience for new teammate Ryan Gosuch, a member of the engine. The 16-year-old came back with a wet shirt and new respect for his family.

"It was exciting," he said, but "it was a lot harder work than I thought it would be."

The paddling never got easier, Ryan said, even once the boat was speeding along. He said his arms felt like Jell-O.

For Jerry Besvold, 60, it was a workout.

"It's tough," he said. "You're huffing and puffing and out of breath by the end."

Even with the loss of three key engine room rowers -- Steve Stariha and Randy and Colleen Gunderson -- the team feels ready to compete.

"It's two minutes and 15 seconds of hard work to get from start to finish," Lisak said, but having good teammates makes a difference. "We like each other a lot."


They looked good Tuesday, said Diane Kivist, a member of the Outriggers Boat Club in Duluth.

"They have a nice pace," she said.

Dragon Boat races are a great equalizer. Unity -- not power -- is the key to success.

"We decided there's no age to this race," said Sharon Strum of Duluth, a member of the Women of the Dragon team, many of whose members are senior citizens.

"We're proving people age 55 and better are still giving back to the community," said her teammate Shari Scanlon as they stood in line for their practice run Tuesday.

Lisak put it another way.

"It doesn't matter how old we are, how big or how small," he told his team. "If we can paddle together, we can do it."

Their philosophy has merit. Team Stariha rows with the elite division and placed seventh overall last year in a field of 83.


Other teams may be younger or in better shape, Lisak said.

"Or Canadian," joked Tom Lisak, 15.

But Team Stariha has a mental advantage.

"You work together as a family for so long," Lisak said, that when you get in the boat you become a team. Like a roofing project, everyone pitches in to finish the race and send one more dragon gliding over the finish line.

Call Maria Lockwood at call (715) 395-5025 or e-mail .

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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