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Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019
Dragon Boat Festival a lasting legacy for Steve Lee
by Randy Pascal

With the 20th edition of the Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival just a week away, it seemed appropriate to shed a little light on the story of one of the primary pioneers of the event. Well, that, and the fact that Steve Lee was inducted into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame just last month.

Born in Hong Kong, the future engineer would enjoy his first taste of athletic success in a sport that featured few, if any, parallels, to his water sport pastime that would pick up incredible momentum, in Sudbury, upon the arrival of the new millenium.

"When I was student, I bowled in Hong Kong," said Lee. "I picked it up again after university." While both versions of the game (5/10 pin) were prominent, at that time, in Canada, it was the one with a much closer tie to his eventual career in which Lee initially established himself.

"Five pin is mostly about accuracy and speed, a small ball with pins more spread out," he stated. "Ten pin is very scientific. You have to understand lane conditions. It's a little like putting - instead of reading the greens, you read the lanes."

And Lee would learn to read them well, earning a spot on the Canadian men's 10-pin team which won bronze at the Pan Am Bowling Championships in Winnipeg. All of this, of course, preceeded his arrival in northern Ontario, with Lee making the move from London to Sudbury when he accepted a position as engineering manager with Burgess Power Train in 1986.

An avid outdoorsman, Lee was equally proud of his Asian heritage, the two worlds colliding, quite opportunistically, in 1999. "At the beginning, we were looking for an involvement with a Millenium Project, that was an opportunity for CHANO (Chinese Heritage Association of Northern Ontario)," Lee recalled.

"We knew that northern Ontario people, Sudburians, really liked the outdoors, canoeing, kayaking and all that - but none of us had ever paddled dragon boat. We wanted to incorporate culture and tradition. It was a perfect storm."

"When we went to apply to the city, we were directed to Jim Dickson, commodore at the Sudbury Canoe Club. That was all it took, The first year of races was 2000." Though he had no hands-on experience as a competitor, the vision of a Dragon Boat Festival was not entirely foreign to Lee.

"A lot of people in Hong Kong would join the dragon boat teams, even those who are not native to Hong Kong," he said. "It was very dynamic, really bringing the community together."

That same spirit took off like wildfire in Sudbury. From a modest launch of 50 teams in year one, the Festival grew to a record high of 157 teams by year four, second largest in the entire country, behind only Toronto.

To this day, Lee is not entirely sure of the primary impetus to the rapid growth of the new fundraising venture. "I talked to a lot of people," he said. "For the water sports people, this was a new toy. And it wasn't only one or two paddlers - this involved 20 paddlers and a drummer and a steersman."

"It requires techique, it requires co-ordination, it requires perfect synchronization. For a lot of competitive people, that became the ultimate challenge." The primary beneficiaries to this sudden fascination with dragon boating became the charities associated with the SDBF.

Over the course of the last 19 years, almost two million dollars has been raised for a combination of Heart and Soul, Alzaheimer's Society, Independent Living Resource Centre, MS Society, Meals on Wheels and the Sudbury Food Bank.

"One of the most gratifying things for us is that we are proud of running a festival where we are also able to fund-raise for the community," said Lee. And though he has now stepped away, at least for the time being, the festival that Steve Lee was instrumental in unveiling will add another chapter to its legacy, come Saturday, July 14th, on the shores of Lake Ramsay.

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