Close to 180 crew and nearly 5,000 paddlers take to one 500-metre racecourse in False Creek Friday to Saturday for the 24th annual Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival.
Every 12 minutes for 10 straight hours on Saturday and Sunday, up to eight boats will launch from the starting line. The races are fiercely competitive and the quickest cover the distance in two minutes.
Amid the thousands of athletes, a handful of boats draw attention to their accomplishments, ambitions and especially their abilities. They question stereotypes and dispel myths.
Adele Piroshco, the manager with the Eye of the Dragon, a boat of blind and seeing-impaired paddlers, likes it best when their boat can blend in with the crowd.
“It’s an arena where the visually impaired are not competing against the visually impaired. You’re competing against sighted athletes, you’re an equal,” said Piroshco, who met her husband when she joined the team as a seeing guide 11 years ago.
“The great thing about dragon boating is that it’s a sport that doesn’t really focus on your disability. It’s more about your abilities,” she said.
Abreast In A Boat is back on the water and the paddlers, each of them a breast cancer patient or survivor, continues to reject the assumption that women who’ve been treated for the disease should avoid repetitive upper-body movement. The first of its kind in the world when it was launched 16 years ago as a groundbreaking research project, Abreast In A Boat has spurred more than 160 other boats around the globe.
For the past eight years, Conquering Waves has been crewed by people with mental illness, their family and supporters. They continue to conquer the stigma of mental illness while promoting education and awareness.
The teams are competitive.
The Eye of the Dragon’s cheer is “You can’t see us beating you!” and they have helped at least three crews of blind paddlers form in other cities. Timing is crucial in efficient, fast dragon boating and each visually impaired paddler is paired with a guide who sits on the same bench and paddles on the other side of the boat.
“To a certain degree, being visually impaired is a small advantage—you don’t get so distracted by everything that is going on around us,” said Piroshco.
O2P is a team made of kidney dialysis patients, their supporters and health care professionals. They promote kidney health as well as organ donation.
Britta Watts considers her ability to paddle and race with a dragon boat team a gift: “I’m a very lucky girl,” she said.
In 2005, Watts received a double lung transplant. Her organs were scarred from cystic fibrosis and doctors said she would not survive. She was 28.
“I was told that I only had 10 days left to live.” A match was found, she received new lungs and a year later the graduate of Eric Hamber secondary started paddling. She now competes with the Gift of Life Transplant Team alongside other transplant recipients, transplant donors and the family members of donors, some who are alive and others who died.
“There are three donor mothers. For two of them, both sons have passed on and they donated their son’s organs so others may go living. We have another mother who has given her son a kidney and we just recently had anther lady who came on to our boat and she donated her kidney to her husband.”
The team, she said, “is proof that life does go on when you donate your organs.”
Watts said the Gift of Life makes the statement that organ donation is not only a marvel of modern medicine but also a profound act of generosity, often done when the donor’s family is grieving.
A lifeguard when she was younger, Watts is not cured of the genetic degenerative disease, but is grateful to prolong her life.
“I needed to do something for myself and for donor awareness so other people know it does work. I wanted to get back out there. I had a second chance and I wanted to use this gift,” she said.
For more details about the Dragon Boat Festival, visit dragonboatbc.ca