For those that don’t know, Dragon Boat racing is where 20 or so brightly dressed testosterone filled men, paddle like crazy across a lake or river, all hell bent on reaching the same goal. It’s colorful, loud, and filled with tradition and Chinese politics.
We had a successful year last year, not because of our strength or fitness level, but because we had a great team camaraderie, and a will to win. Our team was made up of all shapes and sizes, male and female young and old (well ok I was the old one!), and we had great fun. Little did I know that our success in 2006 would lead to problems this year!
In 2007 we were not only expected to take part in races but this time we were expected to win. Most of us did it just to keep fit and enjoy the occasion, but this was a new year, and it would be a new team! The young girls, and the less energetic of the team had now been replaced by monsters – gigantic Chinese athletes, with arm’s as thick as my thighs and backs as broad as they were long.
We hadn’t trained for a long time, and to say we were ‘rusty’ would have been an understatement, however after a couple of sessions, our muscles remembered what to do, and we were back into the rhythm. We thought that after a couple of months we would be in race condition again, but that’s not how it works in China! Just 2 weeks after picking up the paddle again, we had been entered into a race in the neighboring city of Changzhou. A warm up race you might think? Definitely not, we would be representing Nanjing – a city of over 6.5 million people - Gulp!
Day 2 and we headed off in the cavalcade of organized transport – 12 newly painted coaches with police outriders to stop the traffic, and allow a quick transfer. Driving through development zone after development zone, with major constructions sites the size of small villages littering the route to the start of the venue.
As we peeled out of the coaches, we got a view of the competition, our jaws dropped. It seemed that the entire cast of Conan the Barbarian, and Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon had been replicated in some crazy Chinese DNA experiment. The guys in our boat, whom I had described as ‘monsters’ now looked like mere children. They wore sleeveless shirts, not because they allowed for freer movement of the arms when rowing – simply because they couldn’t find shirts with arms big enough in them! They also wore a kneepad on one knee – which bemused not only me, but also the rest of our team. We were keen to ‘put paddle in water’ and work off the hangovers we had accrued the night before, and jumped into our allotted boat. A few practice starts, and a bit of muscle burn to get us warmed up, then we saw it – a thunderous sight, 20 Chinese hulks half kneeling (the reason for the knee pad!), half standing in the boat, rowing so hard, they were making Moses impressions of parting the water around them, speed boats made less wake, and most were slower than these guys. Then another team with the same style, and another, and another – what had we got into? Our style and all the styles we had seen before were with your bum firmly fixed to the plank of wood across the boat, ours was a frantic but elegant style, this seemed primeval.
Primeval it may have been, but it looked incredibly effective, our chances of surviving the first round had diminished, we had reached our limit it didn’t matter how many muscle bound athletes we had in our boat, this style seemed to have made such an impact on the speed that the boat could travel.
The practice session over, and back into the coaches for the long journey back to the hotel, we were all exhausted and mentally scared by what we had seen, our confidence was rock bottom. An early start the next morning meant leaving the hotel at 7am. Several other teams had made the long journey to Changzhou, including a team from Beijing, and a crew from Shanghai – which was thankfully made up of expats from across the globe, including Canadian, American, Japanese, Korean, and even an English rower. I say thankfully because the attention we were getting from the crowd, other contestants and the media, was becoming tiresome – so a few more pale faces in the contest, meant we were left alone for a while!
The ceremony started with the usual political speeches, followed by the painting of the eyes on the dragon’s heads at the front of the boats.
We would first take part in the sprint, which covered 250 meters of frantic rowing, our previous best was 1 minute 13 seconds, We beat this by a clear 10 seconds, however the other teams left us in there wake, every team that chose to stand in the boat came in with a time under 1 minute. I was then told that several of the teams had participated in International races – representing China! The winners (and world no.2) came in with a time of 52 seconds, over 10 seconds faster than us, which over 250 meters is incredible. Mentally shattered we went back to our fisherman’s huts to rest and watch the remainder of the morning’s events.
Next was the longer distance race of 500 meters, from the start it was obvious that we weren’t going to compete at the same level as the rest of the teams, so our goal was to improve our personal bests, and treat the day as a training event for the next races.
We were far more competitive at this longer distance, and performed respectfully, knocking a massive 20 seconds off our previous best in a race.
The ultimate winners of the competition destroyed the opposition. They had already won the mornings sprint, and breezed through the heats, putting in times of 1:53.67, 1:53.35 and 1:53.64 on their way to the final, then full of self confidence let go and won by a full boat length with a time of 1:50.23, I was amazed at their performance, no wonder they were the worlds No.2.
The event itself finished as it had started with a Banquet, this time in honor of the champions. The usual Bei ju and beer flowed freely, as did the singers, dancers and strangely a saxophonist! Then the long journey back to Nanjing, and the end of a rude awakening to the professional side of Dragon Boat Races, rowing a pleasure boat in Stratford-Upon-Avon, would never have the same appeal!