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Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019
The many layers of the Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival
by Randy Pascal

As most who have attended the Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival (SDBF) can readily attest, the competitive aspect of the event is but one small morsel of the myriad of memories that is the annual local summer tradition.

From the core foundation of the fundraising aspect of the SDBF, a venture that has poured nearly two million dollars into the pockets of local charities, to the “on the water” fun, where paddlers and non-paddlers alike seek to test themselves against themselves, to the rich cultural heritage that is shared with the masses, the multiple layers in play often have little or nothing to do with who came in first, overall, at the end of the day.

Few teams capture this concept better than the collection of vessels that is “Team Alo”. At a time when just trying to maintain a crew off 22, year over year, becomes the biggest concern for most of the groups that are entered, the Alopecia crafts are again experiencing growth.

The umbrella entry, that is spearheaded by the husband and wife team of Mandy and Ozzy Flores, has added a fourth boat to the mix in 2018. It's a close to the heart venture that was inspired as a means of support for their daughter, Maya, dealing with the effects of “alopecia totalis”.

“We were always just here for awareness, we're here for fun, so there's no pressure,” noted Mandy, as the “Alo” alliance prepares for year seven of their involvement with the Dragon Boat Festival. “The commitment is reasonable. If people can't make every practice, that's OK. We've always been pretty laid back in terms of that, so other people have reached out to us.”

“Whenever we had more people, we just added another boat.” The twist, this year, is a younger than usual addition to the fold, as Team Alo welcomes a “junior” boat to their fleet. “A lot of the parents that are on our boats, their children are now old enough to paddle, so we thought, why not start a junior boat,” said Flores.

First things first, when it comes to properly preparing the dragon boat newbies. “Our first priority is the awareness of alopecia, so we educate the kids, such that if people come up and ask them questions, they will be able to answer the questions. Once they are on the boat, the biggest thing is that they have to be able to make it through the entire race, to put the paddle in properly, pulling properly and so forth.”

As for a team goal this year, Mandy Flores is not about to deviate from the plan. “Last year, we collected 69 ponytails, because we do have our hair-cutting station (donated hair is passed on to the Wigs for Kids Foundation) on site, so we're hoping to surpass that,” she said. “What's been fun this year is that people have been calling and having us pick them up, or have been dropping them off, throughout the year.”

And while many a paddler has dipped their toes in the waters of the Dragon Boat Festival, participating for maybe three or four years before moving on to other things, the Flores' clan are in no rush to leave this very worthwhile venture. “Next year, Maya will be old enough (12) to actually be on the boat,” said Mandy. “We're looking forward to that.”

“We actually just follow her lead. As long as she is comfortable with us promoting the awareness of alopecia through her, we'll just keep going.” While countless other paddlers may not enjoy quite the same spiritual tie-in to the SDBF as Team Alo, there is certainly a connection to Lake Ramsay and all that the day-long celebration entails that keeps luring them back, year after year.

“We have this beautiful lake, right smack dab in the middle of our city, and it's a gem to be on,” said Amy Kuhn, an eight year festival veteran, the bulk of which have been spent as paddler and now coach/paddler with the Micado entry.

“To be out there with a bunch of friends, paddling – well, as much as it's hard work, it's still a lot of fun.” A SDBF mainstay since the very start of this sporting fiesta, Micado was not an unknown entity to Kuhn, who crossed over from Team Chiro, once the long-time paddling powerhouse ran its course, sometime around 2011.

“I knew that they (Micado) were that boat that was always there, they were always in it,” she said. They were maybe never “THE” team, but they were always in the running for it.” That, in itself, has not changed. The crew are two-time defending champs in the Industrial division and have cracked the top ten, overall, in back to back years.

But that is only part of the story. “We call ourselves the semi-competitive group,” said Kuhn. “We're the ones that want to win, but are not about to compromise our ability to have fun for the sake of winning. We put in our practice time, ten practices a year, and we do our best, but after that, we celebrate our community and our friendships.”

“Our goal is to be as competitive as we can be, given the challenges that we have filling a 22-person boat, and so on.” The bulk of those efforts fall on the shoulders of former team manager, Linda Caruso, and her heir apparent, Aurel Roy, a tandem who continue to work together almost two decades from the time that they initially joined in with their fellow mariners.

“They are a very dedicated group, obviously,” stated Kuhn. “Some of them have been in the boat for 18 years, 19 years now. They're a passionate group that love to have a good time.” There are, in fact, about a half dozen or so members who have been with the Micado since either the very beginning, or very, very shortly thereafter.

“It's always a special team, a close-knit team,” said Caruso. “We always have a pot luck party after the race at the home of one of the paddlers.” And that tradition carries on, regardless of where they might finish come late afternoon this coming Saturday.

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