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From Sudbury to Sarasota, the dragon boat paddling pathway runs
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Together is better – but apart is still fine.

As long as Julie Vakareskov and Dave Barrett are paddling, specifically with the dragon boat variety, life is good.

The Sudbury couple recently returned from Sarasota (Florida), site of the Club Crew World Championships (2022) with a combination of nine gold or silver medals, the tandem competing as part of the Pickering Dragon Boat Club, with local product Melanie Cartier also participating as part of True North Paddling Club (her story to follow later this week).

Though teammates on some of the Pickering entries, the northern duo would also compete on separate teams, at times, combining to appear in no less than 30 races covering distances of 200m, 500m or 2000m.

Understandably, it is then only fitting that Barrett (52) and Vakareskov (42) should first connect as teammates and friends, on the water, with Team Alo, a community boat initially founded in support of alopecia, with both just starting to scratch their competitive itch at the time.

“I love being in the water, I love anything to do with the water,” said Vakareskov, born and raised in Sudbury, moving to St Catharines in 1998 but returning north roughly a decade ago.

Even as she was introduced to dragon boat racing via the more relaxed recreational stream, the physical foundation was already in place to push further, a background in weightlifting and body building creating a base of strength and power that would come in more than just a little handy.

“And then I think it was the competitive aspect of it, the idea of working together as a team on a dragon boat,” she confessed. “You have to know what your partner is doing; you have to watch the person in front of you. It really is all about working as a team.”

“I really enjoyed that.”

The dragon boat connection with Barrett would date back even further, almost to the very start of the Sudbury Festival, initially as a participant with a City entry that embraced the more laissez-faire approach of the majority of teams that would sign up for the single weekend event in July.

“It was just once a year - three practices and a competition, that sort of thing,” said Barrett, a hockey goaltender in his youth who played with the Sudbury Cubs when the team hosted the Centennial Cup in 1991. “I always really enjoyed it and wished it went further.”

As the City squad disbanded, Barrett would transition to the recreational version of Team Alo, one which eventually combined with Team Phoenix to form a more competitive option, or at least competitive on a provincial scale.

“The more competitive stream led to more out of town events,” he said. “To go from paddling recreationally to paddling competitive, there’s a lot to it. They really harp on you: technique, technique, technique. You had to fall in line; everybody had to be precise.”

There’s even more to it if you also partake in a variety of the paddling options that are availed in Sudbury. A champion at the Sudbury Canoe Marathon with paddling partner Laura Young, Vakareskov recalled the learning curve that comes with the realization that not all paddling is created equal.

“In a canoe, you’re up higher and you’re reach is different,” she said. “In a dragon boat, you’re lower and coming right down to the water. For a time, I was doing both so (coach) Rob (Gregoris) was constantly reminding me: Julie, you’re not in a canoe; you’re in a dragon boat.”

Still, it was an environment that would speak to her.

“These were competitive people,” she said. “Surrounding myself with those people was a challenge, one that I enjoyed. You learn how to rotate your body in the boat, just getting really comfortable in the boat. I found that was most important – getting comfortable - and the speed.”

That cross-over moment for Barrett would come on the day he would first meet the Belleville-based Great Lakes Paddlers group, a club which joined forces with the remaining Sudbury crew to compete in the season-ending Great White North regatta in Toronto.

“That’s when we were introduced to the coach there,” recalled Barrett, as his new team outlined their larger goals. “I was hooked – even though I had not even paddled with them yet. I honestly came home and started training that weekend.”

The lure was to compete at nationals and eventually qualify for Worlds, competing in Regina in the summer of 2019 – which they did. But as folks can well imagine, the World Club Crew event in 2020 (France) and the World Team Championships (where Team Canada competes – scheduled for Hong Kong in 2021) were simply not meant to be.

And when your team involves typically 22 ultra committed paddlers (there are now small boat 10 paddler options) who are balancing work, family and life, maintaining continuity is not always easy. Though the Great Lakes Paddlers would scatter their separate ways, Barrett and Vakareskov were eyeing national team tryouts, a process that would introduce them to Team Canada coach and Pickering Club mainstay Scott Murray.

Making the weekly treks to the GTA, each and every Sunday, right through the winter and spring of 2021-2022, it was only a matter of time before Pickering invited the northerners to be one of their own. The clincher to the deal was the fact that Vakareskov could compete with their Senior A crew, given that the Sudbury pair were in different age categories for Worlds.

(a moment of clarification – Senior A covers the 40-49 age bracket; Senior B covers 50-59; and so on; Premier is 24 and over, open to most anyone – and paddlers can paddle down with younger teammates, but cannot paddle up beyond their age bracket)

In fact, Vakareskov might well take as much pride in the fourth place finish of the Pickering Premier Women’s team as the gold medal performance of the Senior A Mixed 200m team, an PDBC entry that also included Barrett.

“Paddling with people that are a lot younger than I, trying to keep up with women who are 24, 25, 26 – I enjoyed that challenge very much,” she said.

Though there is likely a few more races left on the summer of 2022 schedule, their sights now shift to the Team Canada Talent Showcase, effectively the tryouts for nationals, with the first eastern date set for the weekend of September 28th in Welland.

The testing will include time trials on the OC 1 (solo outrigger canoe) as well as workouts with the paddle ergometer. “The strength and power, I have that, especially in the OC 1,” said Vakareskov. “The paddle erg, we don’t have that in Sudbury; that’s where we struggle.”

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