The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Not in the Olympics: The lesser-known sport of dragon boat racing

by Jed Kim | The Madeleine Brand Show

The Los Angeles Racing Dragons practice rowing their dragon boat in Long Beach, Calif. Jed Kim/KPCC

The biggest difference between dragon boat racing and other rowing sports is the number of people involved. While crew teams traditionally have eight rowers, a dragon boat has more than double that: 20.

The Los Angeles Racing Dragons, or LARD for short, practice on a canal in Long Beach, along with about a dozen other teams. Though the word LARD might have a negative connotation for most people, this team likes the moniker. They think of it as lard is packed with calories and energy just as their canoes are packed with paddlers and strength.

The boat these 20 rowers steer today doesn’t have a dragon’s head or tail — they save the flourishes for actual races, not practice. The boat is long, with 10 benches bisecting the boat like a ladder. The team takes a seat in twos and each paddler thrusts his or her wooden oars into the water.

When paddling, your outside hand holds the shaft down near the blade. Your inside hand cups the grip at the top of the paddle. To row, you lean over your side of the boat, using a full body, lunging, rocking, stabbing motion that I can’t get right. I’m relying on my arms too much. Also, I keep accidentally drenching the guy in front of me.

And these rowers are fast.The team’s co-captain Crystal Wang says that elite teams finish a 500-meter race in around two minutes.

“Two minutes out of your whole life. Yeah, that doesn’t seem like very long, but when you’re in the boat, working hard, huffing and puffing, it sometimes can seem like an eternity,” she said.

Legend says dragon boating began in China 2000 years ago, but racing came to Long Beach in 1997, and only because of one man, orthodontist Howard Chen.

Chen is originally from Taiwan, where he used to watch dragon boat races. After moving the States in 1978, he decided to help spread awareness of the sport. He got charitable organizations and friends in Taiwan to contribute eight boats, and then interest grew over the next 15 years.

“Today I think we have around about a hundred teams, so I think locally we have about 2,500 to 3,000 members that paddle,” said Chen.

The LARD group is diverse. There’s a lot of Asian Americans, but they’re not all Chinese — there were a few Koreans. Mostly it’s the age range that’s surprising. LARD has athletes ranging from recent college grads on up.

“I’m 60,” says Cheryl Schmid with a laugh. “I can’t believe the fitness level that I have today, and I’m a seven-year cancer survivor, and I never thought that I would be doing stuff now that I never did when I was a younger person.”

LARD fields multiple teams that go from purely recreational to ones that compete internationally. They let me sit in with their top crew to experience the speed of an elite team. I’m not paddling though; I’m sitting at the front of the boat, looking back at them. They’re all poised with paddles at the exact same ready position.

It’s almost unbelievable how fast we’re moving. The coastline zips by and there’s wind in my hair, but it’s not a smooth ride. Since they row in sync, the boat lurches forward with each stroke — especially when team caller Huay Whee calls for a power stroke.

"It’s a lunge. You really feel it. And I noticed, because you slid out of your seat, that that’s how powerful the boat can get,” said Whee.

At one point the acceleration was so sudden, I tumbled off my bench. But that’s ok, they told me afterwards that it’s not supposed to be easy to ride a dragon.

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