2006 ICF World Dragon Boat Championship, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan - Sept 29 → Oct 1
2006 Kaohsiung International Canoe Federation Championships
By Les Hopper
I had been to the beautiful Buddhist monastery near Kaohsiung before. I remember walking through the garden of life size Buddhas and up the sacred steps to the giant golden Buddha that keeps watch over the entire grounds. That was during a visit in 2003 while racing dragon boats in Taìwan, “Well, it goes like this. . ." we hear ourselves explain once again, and it all makes sense.
This time we were in Kaohsiung for the 2006 International Canoe Federation - or ICF for short - World Dragon Boat Championships. Being there was significant for a number of reasons. First, the races were being held on Lotus Lake, and served as a precursor to the 2009 ICF World Games for paddling sports. Second, it was the first World Dragon Boat Championship held by the ICF. Simply stated, the ICF is the governing body for all water sports under the Olympic umbrella, which include sports such as K-1 kayaks and white water canoing. Previous World Championships, starting in the mid 1990s, have been governed by the International Dragon Boat Federation or IDBF. The recent ICF entry as a hosting entity for world class dragon boat competitions has not set well with the leadership of the IDBF and has resulted in no small amount of friction between the two bodies.
Our preparations for the event had begun in the summer of 2006, contacting prospective paddlers and working on travel logistics. We pulled together a melting pot team from San Diego, Long Beach, Portland, and the odd paddler from New York or ex-pat from Canada. We ranged from young first time international racers to “seasoned” veterans of numerous elite events. We all left the U.S. on September 26th and arrived as a team in Taiwan on the 28th. From the very first moment we set foot in the airport and met our team mates, we knew this event would be special. Connie Flosuras from Portland signed on as co-coach and to help with administrative duties. We had an official team manager (thanks Brian), a team documentarian (Bill Simon) and several other assistants to help Dr. Chen with all the behind the scenes work.
Because this was the first ICF World Championship, there was some trepidation as to which countries would send crews. Any concerns were laid to rest as teams from Hungary, Switzerland, Russia. Germany, Indonesia, France, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and a number of other power houses committed to race.
Although we were tired from the long flights, we wasted no time in getting our crews to the race site for some much needed time in the boats. We only had a day to blend all of our differing strokes. We also got our first glimpses of the competition, from the smaller Asian teams to the giant Europeans. It was a special treat to see a team of Iranian women, dressed in full length paddling outfits and burkas to cover their heads. practicing in the 90% humidity. Our team fell somewhere in the middle, and we looked forward to seeing how we would stack up.
The opening ceremonies were magical, and the teams, dignitaries, and spectators were paraded into a giant quad where black-light dragon dancers officially began the competition. The Iranian and U.S. women smiled and hugged while posing for photos together, putting aside the issues of our governments in the true spirit of paddling. It was a sight, and life lesson, that I will never forget.
On Saturday we raced the grueling 1,000 meter event in all divisions. The start line was at the east end of the lake just under a bridge, and the finish line seemed beyond the visible horizon at the other end of the lake. Strategies for such a long anaerobic event were as varied as the teams, and ranged from the staccato-like stroke rate of the Macau and Indonesian teams to the slow methodical rates of the Swiss and Germans. In between heats, the teams sought shelter from the sun and sprawled in the grass. A dozen different languages could be heard while walking to the marshaling area before each race.
As the sun set over the pagodas across the lake on the first day of racing, the teams were called to the medal stands for the 1,000m awards. Both our Senior Open Women and Masters mixed crews were called up to the stage for bronze and silver medals, and it was such a thrill to see our teams wearing their red white and blue USA shirts on the podium with world class paddlers from around the globe.
The next few days were a blur of marshaling, racing, strategìzing, waiting, marshaling, and racing again and again. We raced 500 meters, 200 meters in both ten and twenty man dragon boats, and 2000 meters around a course like the chariot race in Ben Hur. Our Senior Women and Master's mixed crew continued to earn hardware in all of the events. But I was most proud of our Senior Open Men and Open Mixed crews. In every event, our teams made it to the finals despite being tossed in a boat together for the first time and working out the kinks as we went along. This accomplishment stands even more spectacular when measured against the fact that the Europeans all had a number of Olympic athletes on their crews. The international competition bar has been raised very high in recent years, and many countries have resorted to recruiting national level or even Olympic rowers and kayakers for their teams. l think all of us dream of one day seeing our sport in the Olympic Games.
In the middle of the days during lunch break and in the evenings at the awards ceremonies, we got a chance to mingle with our fellow racers, bargain for race jerseys, and chat about past and future competitions. The common thread for all of us, regardless of language or nationality, was a love of travel and competition, along with the pride that comes from representing your country against the world’s best. We just want to go to a great venue and race. It doesn't really matter whose name is at the top.
I think again of our U.S. women and Iranian women putting aside the differences of their governing leaders and finding a common ground through racing. There are no politics, no power struggles; just the joy giving your best to your team and getting it back in so many ways. Dragon Boating is all about unity, twenty individual paddlers working as one.
In 2009 the World games will be held on Lotus Lake, and dragon boat racing will be one of the featured events, I will be there, looking forward to one more visit to the monastery and some quiet time at the foot of the Buddha.
Day 3 was the U.S. Team's last practice before the races on Friday but before practice, we went sightseeing. Nick, Lorena, and I visited a local mall and gym with 2 MAD guys - one of which just moved to Taiwan. The gym we saw was NICE - it was on top of the department store on the 16th floor, I believe. We then went to the driving range (yes, driving range) which was tucked back in the mountains. We hit a few balls and headed back to the hotel for practice.
We started paddling genders again. The men are starting to tighten it up a bit. We also got on the 10 man boats. All of the boats are new generation Champion boats (the ones we have in LB). These new boats are pretty damn good - there's not too much exposed wood (lots of durable plastic). The only thing wood you can see are the benches which can be easily replaced by unscrewing two phillips screws. There are also recessed handles on the inside of the boat so you no longer have to lift the boat from the bench. The 10 man boats are AWESOME. Believe it or not, they are more stable than the 20 man boats because they are so wide - you can fit 3 people in each row - that's how wide they are. I can't wait for these boats to get to LB.
After dinner at the race site, we participated in the opening ceremonies at Confucius Temple right next to the race site. The highlight of the night was the lion dancing - on elevated platforms. It was kinda like watching NASCAR, you want to see someone crash. But the performers were flawless.
Friday, Day 4, was the first day of racing. All races consisted of 1000m. Team USA was entered in the following divisions - open men, open women, open mixed, masters men, and masters women. We medaled in 2 of the divisions (masters mixed (Nick was on this team) and open women (K1 and Lorena were on this one). They ran some very strong races. For the US to medal at all, was amazing considering we have only practices as a crew a few times. I must have heard the Germany national anthem 20 times since they won so many gold medals.
The open men should have made it to the finals for a possible medal, but, to be frank, we ran a PISS 2nd race. We caught a rail and lost all our momentum because the boat wasn't balanced properly and too much weight was being thrown outside of the boat. Our performance was unacceptable at the level we are racing and we got a THOROUGH tongue lashing from one of our coaches. The lashing paid off - the men ran one more race after the debacle and we turned in a great piece. Something to build on for the 500 meter races tomorrow. The women looked absolutely flawless. They ran a great race piece and got some hardware for their hard work.
We had dinner with Karen, Leon and Jason's grandfather. It was to date, the best food we have had in Taiwan.
Off to bed, 500m and 250m races tomorrow. Russia and the Philippines will join the festivities tomorrow.