I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was both nervous, excited and intrigued. Everyone had told me that this was why we were getting up early to train on a Sunday morning. This was why I was heading straight from work to the river on a Wednesday evening. It was all for this. It was race day.
I started dragon boat racing when the club founded in May 2016, and whilst I had done a bit of kayaking/canoeing as a teenager, this was my first proper time paddling. I was sure it couldn’t be that hard, just stick the paddle (it took a while to get used to the name!) in the water and pull back. What I hadn’t realised was that there were 19 other paddlers in the boat that I had to co-ordinate with, before even thinking about focusing on my own technique!
What started as a bit of fun, to support my family, quickly turned into a keen passion of mine. I learnt that there was a great deal of technique to learn about dragon boat racing, the rotation, the reach, the kick, the complex starts… it was a lot to take in at first. Slowly but surely I started getting more used to the boat, the timing, the calls from the helm and everything began to feel like second nature. Training was hard work, I was using muscles I didn’t know existed, and there was no let off from our ambitious coach. But I was told it would all be worth it when the racing started.
So here I was, about to take part in my first race. The four months of training didn’t feel like enough, I expected for us to come stone cold last in every race. What I hadn’t expected was the buzz that you feel as you walk down to the boat, or the sense of family that you had towards the team mates that had spent the same hours as you training in whatever weather England threw at us, or the nervous excitement as you approached the start line.
There were six boats lined up for our first race. This included some of the top teams in the UK! We had a team made up mostly of newbies, with a smattering of experience, surely no match for the rest of the field? But what we had in droves was heart and desire. Today was the day to make an impact.
Everyone went quiet. I heard the call from the starter… “Attention”, I took in a deep breath and prepared for my proper initiation into the sport of dragon boat racing… “Go”. Countless paddles smashed into the water. Six boats surged forwards in a shower of spray. The first time I looked up I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We were competing. We were holding our own. Our boat, the crew, the Soaring Dragons family, were up with the leaders.
We passed the halfway point, our inexperienced paddlers started to tire. Calls of “Squeeze” from the helm turned our focus back on to the race, to our technique, our timing, our quality. Everything we had been training for came down to this. The last 100 metres. We pushed on, trying to keep together and finish in style. The line couldn’t come soon enough, and as our boat crossed the whole team let out a huge cheer. Soaring Dragons were here.
It was a race that we were expected to finish stone cold last. In actual fact we were just a few seconds behind the top teams in the UK! Everyone was right. It was all worth it. This was a feeling like no other. This was an exciting explosive team sport. Now I cannot wait to get back in that boat for the next race…