Words by 'Birds: facing the greats at the Canadian Dragon Boat Championships

The only thing we could control that weekend was how we raced within our own boat.

Alex Pang is currently in his final year of his Bachelors of Science in Nursing at UBC. He first joined the dragon boat club for the 2014/15 season, and is currently in his third year paddling with the team. 

What a year. Our team — UBC Thunderbirds Dragon Boat Sport Club — attended the Canadian national championship for the first time since the club’s establishment. Against the top teams in Canada, we managed to finish in seventh place.

This season, we decided to take the dragon boat team to the next level and compete against the teams that we formally idolized and aspired to be. The team made the decision to compete at the highest level here in Canada: the Canadian Dragon Boat Championships in Welland, Ontario.

We ramped up our training regime to having at least seven mandatory practice sessions a week: three in the gym and four on the water. The gym regime constantly pushed our limits and the water practice was just as physically demanding. Nevertheless, we persevered through the snow, hail, rain and everything else Vancouver’s weather threw at us to continue with our routine.

Excited and anxious about having to compete against the top teams in Canada, I trained harder than ever before. Waking up at five in the morning and coming home late at night to train became the norm.

As the Championship drew closer, I could feel the anxiety and excitement levels rise amongst the team. We had no idea what we were up against out east, as all the information we had about the teams from the east were vague descriptions from veteran paddlers. We had no idea what we were in for, but we continued to train even more than before — I headed out on the water two, sometimes three, times a day. Our dragon boat practices began to have a state of urgency: there was no more dilly-dallying.  

Fast forward to nationals in Ontario, the first impression I had when I reached Welland International Flatwater Centre was how real it all suddenly was. Thinking about how the bleachers would be filled with people and which teams would be standing on the empty podium in the next three days was almost surreal.

The first day of mixed gender races was off to an abrupt start. The day consisted of gendered races in the morning and mixed races — our main event — in the afternoon.

As the gendered races progressed in the sunny morning, we observed a cloud — enormous in size and black in colour — heading straight towards the race site, almost in an ominous fashion. Right before we could start the mixed races, this monstrous cloud managed to loom right over the site, sending a torrent of rain accompanied by constant flashes of lightning. As a result, the rest of the day’s races were cancelled due to safety concerns, and the fate of our entire season rested solely on the four races on the next day.

The sky had cleared up for the final day of races. I could feel the anxiety and nervousness emanating from myself as well as my teammates. It was expected, as many of us had not touched the water since we first visited the race site a week before and making the top division depended solely on the first race due to race cancellations the day prior. Unfortunately, our lack of national experience was clear: we finished in eighth place in the 200-metre final.

Courtesy Caotography

Our final chance to make the top division came in the 500-metre semi-finals. Once again, we came short by a fraction of a second, dropping our placement to the B final and losing our chance at the podium. A bleak atmosphere enveloped our tent — all the time we spent on and off the water training to become Canada’s top dragon boat team was now out of our reach.

However, we weren’t finished yet — we had yet to prove that we could compete with Canada’s best. I could feel the team’s intent to win in the heavy silence as we approached the start line for our final race. As the starting horn went off, we poured everything we had into those final strokes, resulting in a first place finish in the heat and a seventh overall finish for the regatta.

Although we didn’t reach the goal we set at the beginning of the season, UBC Thunderbirds Dragon Boat Sport Club left Welland with few regrets. The only thing we could control that weekend was how we raced within our own boat. Looking back at this weekend, we’ve come to agree that we raced as well as we were capable of racing.

With almost half the team being completely new to the sport, placing seventh in Canada was no small feat. We showed that we could compete against the top teams in Canada, and we’ll be sure to cross paddles again with them in the future.