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From one end to the other of the dragon boat spectrum
2019-07-10

Over the course of the past twenty years, organizers of the Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival have, quite literally, welcomed thousands of paddlers to the waters of Ramsey Lake for the now annual summer tradition.

Men and women, young and old, of all shapes and sizes, athletes and non-athletes alike – all have gathered in support of the worthy cause of that year, committing perhaps as much as six to eight weeks of practices for the overwhelming majority of teams.

The 37-team field that will begin racing this Saturday morning is every bit as varied as those who came before. Thankfully, one and all have a story to tell.

The ultra competitive sector will be represented by the near-perfect synchronicity of both the Great Lake Paddlers (GLP) and the Ice Dragons, teams whose training for this event, and other races, extends pretty much throughout the entire calendar year.

In fact, the local component of GLP accounts for only approximately half of those who man the vessel on a regular basis, as Sudbury water sport enthusiasts gather with counterparts from Welland, London, Belleville and Toronto, striving to be the very best they can be.

Just days after the completion of the local festival, Team GLP will fly out to Regina, site of the Canadian championships, targetting a berth at the 2020 Worlds in France.

“Most of us are on the water about four times a week, just to try and get our technique better,” noted GLP veteran Peter Zuliani, now in his third year with the team. “Over the winter, we all train, a lot of strength training and cardio training, and then we have testing, to see if we're getting better.”

Of course, the split team composition, geographically speaking, can present some challenges. “We all have different kinds of techniques,” said Zuliani. “But we typically have training camp on the May long weekend, our weekend together, and then we'll do three to four races before nationals.”

If this sounds familiar, then you likely recollect the steady stream of success that followed Team Chiro through the early stages of the new millenium. “Chiro was one of the best teams in Canada, so we're trying to get it back there,” said Zuliani. “You lose people all the time, so we like to have about 35 people. That way, people can move up or down (between GLP and Ice Dragons), depending on what is going on with their lives at the time.”

Certainly, there are some who migrated to these top-end boats by virtue of a lifetime of paddling experience, adults whose summer childhood memories involved primarily time spent on the water, with some type of paddle in hand: the Rob Gregoris' and Brenda Loubert's of the world, if you will.

But many others simply have trampolined from a solid athletic base, introduced to the sport of dragon boating in a less competitive environment, but yearning for more, smitten with the sport such that they ultimately worked their way over to a crew of similar mindset.

“If you were to look up and down the boat, I would say that a good number of people started off with a recreational team,” suggested Rick Ranger, another one of the co-organizers of the quasi-affiliated venture that is the Ice Dragons/GLP partnership. “Either their (recreational) team collapsed and they started looking for a new team, or they get approached.”

“I did it initially through HSN, for about four years, and then someone from Team Phoenix (former SCC competitive team) asked me to try out,” added Ranger. “The first time I said no, but I came aboard the second time they asked.”

It is ceratinly possible that a small number of one time members of Glencore Hydra, whose earliest incarnations involved the corporate evolution via both Falconbridge Limited and Xstrata monikered boats, may have moved along in search of their need to speed, albeit not many.

“Some of our team members are on competitive teams, but we are the fun team, the recreational team from Glencore,” noted Iyo Grenon, Human Resources – Senior Communications Specialist with the company, and team spokesperson, on this night, for the Hydra pack. “It's one of our favourite employee volunteer engagement opportunities.”

In fact, there is absolutely a workforce benefit in play for the local mining presence. “We have multiple sites, so this is a chance for people from different sites to get to know each other and do some corporate team building,” said Grenon, now in her fourth year as a paddler on the team. “And, of course, focusing on having a healthy workforce is key, with health and safety often hand in hand.”

“This also helps our new summer students gel with the full-time permanent employees who have been here for many years.” The end goal for Hydra paddlers might have as much to do with the post-practice gathering at a nearby watering hole, allowing co-workers to network in a highly informal setting, but there is absolutely a requirement for some physical competency to this undertaking.

“We have some team members that are really into health, so we start with 15 to 30 minutes of workout,” said Grenon. “They call it warm-up, but for me, it's hard,” she added with a laugh.

Members of the newly formed NEO Kids Narwhals can so relate. “We have three rules on our team, and the first is don't drown,” joked Hailey Short, Events and Community Outreach Coordinator with the Neo Kids Foundation and defacto team captain/manager. “We're a very new team, very novice. We actually recruited our drummer and steersperson at the media launch, which was great, because we were so inexperienced.”

“They've been a great asset to our team and kind of run our practices.”

With the NEO Kids Foundation as the beneficiary of choice for the 2019 Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival, Short jumped enthusiastically on board, one of a handful of Narwhals who can draw on at least some previous race experience. “I played soccer for years, danced a little bit, and paddled for a few years on a different team,” she said. “They kind of primed me for this, which was great – but we're there to have fun.”

And regardless of which end of the competitive spectrum that paddlers find themselves, fun seems to be at the top of everyone's list in noting the goal of the day.

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