Dragon boat racing returns to Calgary after the COVID-19 pandemic, and people come together to race for a cause, and to build community.
Calgary has been home to dragon boat racing for more than two decades, but according to the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), the activity originated in China 2000 years ago.
Additionally, dragon boats have become popular across the globe, with the IDBF saying that over 50 million participants exist worldwide.
Now, after two years of the event’s suspension due to COVID, the Calgary Dragon Boat Race and Festival returned and was celebrated from Aug. 5 to 7.
Joyce Tai is a member of Red Eyes Dragon Boat, a dragon boat competitive team that raced at the festival with men’s, women’s, and mixed teams. She was part of their women’s team called Law & Disorder.
At the same time, Tai works as a promotor of the Calgary Dragon Boat Society (CDBS). Tai says she was inspired by her team as they came together, and by a teammate during the final race.
“During the pandemic, many people suffered mental health issues from being isolated, but the people in our community stuck together as a team. Even when we could not train together, we could still reach out to one another on videos and calls,” said Tai.
“We’ve developed lifelong friendships with people who come from different backgrounds that we did not expect to make friends with, and we found something that we can learn later in life.”
Tai says that a woman on their team was the “one thing that kept me going.” JoAnn, the woman Tai is referring to, has a back injury that was caused by hiking; and as a result, couldn’t participate in the race.
“[JoAnn] surprised us by showing up to watch our women’s final. Everyone from the team was fueled with power because we were doing it for ourselves and JoAnn, and we won the bronze medal.”
The Red Eyes Dragon Boat mixed team placed fourth in the consolation finals, finishing ninth overall. Their men’s team combined with another team to place fourth overall.
The women of Red Eye Dragon Boat combined with Spartans and Calgary Police Service Bad Buoys as Law & Disorder to finish in third place for the Calgary Chinatown Cup, giving the team the bronze medal.
Paddling to good health
Across North America, many teams of women are made up of breast cancer survivors. The Sistership Dragon Boat Association is a Calgary-based collective of breast cancer survivors.
According to the association, Dr. Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician from B.C, proved that a unique exercise and training program incorporating dragon boat paddling could avoid lymphedema and help women enjoy whole, active lives.
Each year, the CDBS partners with the Sistership Dragon Boat Association and holds the breast cancer race and Pink Flower Ceremony to raise awareness of breast cancer, and to honour those who lost their lives to it.
“The Sistership Calgary Dragon Boat Association lost 12 members from 2020 to 2022. To memorialize the people they lost, the teams of breast cancer survivors mark their old teammates’ names on the boat to carry on their legacy and pass their spirit to society,” said Danny Ng, director of the CDBS.
Our club is about people, and we are a big family. I feel rewarded when seeing the smile on their faces after they cross the finish line.
The Sistership has existed in Calgary for 24 years. The organization started with only a handful of paddlers, and has grown to over 70 members, ranging in age from 40 to 80-years-old.
“It is mighty to get in the boat. When we first started the training, it just felt like freedom to push away from the dock and leave all the stress and anxiety. There is so much strength in it that evokes our passion and gives us more motivation to perform well,” said Terri Ross, president of the Sistership Calgary Dragon Boat Association.
“Sometimes things happening in the race are funny. People fall off the bench because of the water we stir, or a big wave, and everybody just laughs and keeps paddling. It brings out our great sense of humour. Over the winter season, some girls would go walking; some would work out together in the gym. Because we know the better you practice active living, the better chance you have of remaining cancer free.”
Dragon boat teams paddle for causes and for community
Among all teams in the club, there is a special team from Kids Cancer Care called Speedy Kindle Parents. This team is from the Kids Care Foundation, which brings parents of children with cancer together as a team.
The foundation not only provides support to children that have cancer, but to their parents as well. The dragon boat race offers a chance for parents undergoing the same situation to let down their guard and enjoy the time with families and friends.
“Through dragon boat racing, parents build relationships with teammates with similar problems and become a resource. The positivity they gained from the activity made them stronger, and they transferred the power back to their children,” said Ng.
To celebrate the post-pandemic comeback, the CDBS sought to involve more communities in this year’s festival.
Enterprises use the activity to create a positive, productive company culture. Corporations that participate in the event invest in the teams to provide a chance for employees to build their friendships outside of the workplace.
The International Centre at SAIT was also involved in the event this year, seeking to bolster ties between SAIT and the Chinese community in Calgary.
“While paddling, your body will recover for the most part, but mentally you can push yourself beyond those simple physical limits by letting go of the noises in your mind,” said Kelvin Koay, head coach at the CDBS.
“The fact that you are in the boat with 20 other people with the same goals and knowing that every ounce of your energy contributes to the speed of this boat is a supreme feeling,”