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Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019
Vale crew enter Dragon Boat Festival as the Rio deal
by Randy Pascal

For the past seventeen years, Rob Palkovits has been a Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival mainstay, a key organizer in what was originally the “Inco One” entry which now competes as the “Rio Dragons”.

In year number eighteen of his involvement in the event, however, Palkovits and his teammates have the dubious status of “defending champions”, with the group completing the sweep by also leading the way in terms of team pledges in 2016.

Originally introduced to the Festival as a paddling trainer under the tutorship of former Sudbury Canoe Club commodore and Dragon Boat icon Jim Dickson, Palkovits has served as a pivotal lead on a crew that would appear to strike a very healthy balance between their competitive natures and the enjoyment of the event itself.

“The way I like to coach it, it’s just about trying to keep everybody together,” said Palkovits. “We want to keep it predominantly Vale, but we have welcomed others. We try and have fun and make it more of an outing. I think everybody likes the fact that we have more of camaraderie within the group.”

Still, one does not return for eighteen consecutive years if one is not driven, at least a little bit, to some form of progress and improvement. While simply being out on the water, even in a wayward vessel, can be fun to most novice paddlers, there is an enjoyment that comes from garnering at least a comfortable base knowledge of the proper technique needed to ensure the sensation of the boat skimming across the water.

“If your paddles are not synchronized, you’re dead in the water,” said Palkovits. “You can be the weakest team but have the best synchronization, and you will contend well.” Though the team is dealing with a large turnover this year, welcoming in eight to ten new paddlers (in a crew of twenty), the previous editions of the Dragons enjoyed some stability, with interest peaked in the most unusual of venues.

“Rob and I were playing hockey together,” recalled nine year team veteran Hugh Hinschberger. “I had done war canoes as a kid with the Canoe Club in North Bay. In war canoe, you’re kneeling and you have better reach. In a sitting position, it’s harder to reach as far, so it’s a shorter stroke. Other than that, it’s very similar, very critical to stay in sync.”

And lest one worry that Hinschberger and others have become obsessed with the competitive nature of this endeavour, he is quick to put the summer tradition in perspective. “We’re out there for the fun, for the exercise, for the camaraderie of the group, helping everyone become better to have a decent challenge that you’re competitive, and at the same time, have a lot of fun doing it,” he said.

“Nobody is dead set on winning. We’re all out there to do our best and enjoy our ride on the waves.” The reality, however, is that only three of the forty entries into the 2017 Festival show themselves as “experienced”, with 21 novice teams and 16 of the intermediate variety rounding out the field.

With the competitive entries that used to dot the Sudbury Festival now a think of the past – Team Chiro has not been involved for a few years now – the experience factor of the Rio Dragons, as well as the SCC Phoenix and the Micado, will inevitably move them into the category of pre-race favourites.

“We got lucky last year, hit our stride in just the right race,” said Hinschberger. “It is just keying in to the start, being into the strokes at just the right time, having the waves just so, when you hit your stride and you have a good line on the course. When the starter says go, you’re more ready than the other boats. If your boat is drifting towards the start line, that can be just perfect.”

Given the larger turnover than usual, the surprising arrival of Valerie Falcioni could not have come at a better time. A native Sudburian who has lived in Ottawa for the past three decades, Falcioni has traditionally spent her summers at the family camp on Long Lake. Moreover, she has also participated in the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, the largest in North America with some 200 entries or so.

“This is the first year that I was able to be here early enough to try and get a spot on a dragon boat team,” Falcioni explained. “I contacted the Festival in the winter and the Rio Dragons were the first team to contact me.” It was, it would seem, a near perfect match.

“These guys are wonderful, very, very welcoming, a very sociable team,” said Falcioni. “They’re not necessarily out partying, but they are very connected. We’re here to paddle, but we’re here to enjoy each other. It’s a much more nurturing way of getting the best out of people.” And like so many others who have spent time on the water, she is quick to put her skill-set in context.

“I know what I’m doing, but it doesn’t mean that I’m good,” she said with a smile. “I know how to paddle, which doesn’t mean I can execute it. You’ll have people that love the sport and are not necessarily Olympic paddlers. You have people that drop in out of the sky, and are just the most natural athletes for this particular sport.”

Beyond that, Falcioni has noticed an immediate difference in venues. “Paddling Ramsey is just a delight,” she beamed. “We were training on the big waves of the Ottawa River. The water wasn’t as nice as Ramsey, but wasn’t as bad as Mooney’s Bay.”

Paddling ability aside, Palkovits is more than happy to bring aboard another enthusiastic member to the team. He does, after all, have a goal in mind. “I would like to get to twenty years,” he said. Not necessarily the primary goal one might have expected from the defending champs.

The 2017 Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival will take place on Saturday, July 15th at Bell Park and Ramsey Lake. The charity beneficiary of choice for this year is the Sudbury Hospice Foundation.

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