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Dragon boat race brings out best
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Southwestern's dragon boat participants. - photo by Dena Harris

School rivalries were put on hold for one weekend in September as Southwestern fans were cheering on Cuba City dragon boat racers and vice versa.

The 28th annual Dubuque Dragon Boat Race was held at Miller Riverview Park Sept. 11, 12 and 13, and there were plenty of local participants.

Southwestern Schools got started in dragon boat racing four years ago when one group of girls wanted to get involved and joined an East Dubuque team.

“East Dubuque got us started,” Tina Wright, history and geography teacher at Southwestern Middle School, said. “We asked some Cuba City students to paddle with us in the last few years and now they have two teams of their own. This year we had some from Benton paddling with us and a teacher in Potosi is interested in getting it started there.”

Now Southwestern has 125 students participating as well as 25 parents and alumni from the Southwestern and Cuba City schools. Cuba City had 40 participants. This year, Southwestern students comprised five teams, the parents/alumni were one team and Cuba City students had two teams.

Dragon boat racing requires 18 paddlers, a drummer, a flag catcher and a sternsman in the back. The paddlers paddle in unison according to the beat of the drummer. The goal is to collect a flag, as is done by the flag catcher hanging over the dragon head at the front of the boat to reach into the water where the flag is located on the timer system.

“Sometimes it’s hilarious to watch,” Wright said. “It’s all about paddling together to get the best time. They have to paddle in unison to get the boat high off the water to get a good time.”

The first day of completion, Saturday, is all about having the lowest time. Then teams are placed into categories and go head-to-head with similarly-suited teams on Sunday.

“It’s only a one-weekend commitment, it’s not a lot of time committed,” Wright said. “It gives your kid who isn’t a great athlete a chance to be on a team. Athletes also realize it’s different and still hard work.”

This is not a school-sponsored event. It is a once-a-year event that anybody can participate in.

“Two practice boats are available for new teams,” Wright said. “The team is put out there with a coach to learn the skills it takes to paddle in unison. Teams can have up to two practices before the event. It’s not like paddling a canoe. It’s a different technique. Those boats weigh a lot and the goal is to try to get it off the water to go faster.”

Wright said missing a flag is a three-second penalty. Those seconds can be costly as most teams are within 1/100th of a second of each other.

“It’s all about teamwork and camaraderie on the water,” Wright said. “They’re excited for everybody’s teams to do well.”

Cuba City’s senior team placed second in the B Division and the junior/sophomore/freshman team placed fourth in the C Division. Southwestern’s seniors, named “The Benton/Southwestern Crew,” took first place in the C Division. Juniors,“Super Dragon Heroes,” was the only Southwestern team in the B Division. Even though the team didn’t place in the top three, it was awarded Southwestern’s Paddle Award for having the lowest score of any of the Southwestern teams. The Southwestern sophomores, “Friends on the River,” placed third in the C Division. The freshmen, “Isaac, His Ladies and One Bro,” took second place in the C Division. And the eighth grade team took first place in the Rookie Division.
Southwestern’s Alayna Smith participated as flag catcher for the team “Breast of Friends,” a group of women fighting breast cancer. That team gave Smith one of their gold medals for helping.

The Cuba City/Southwestern parents and alumni team, “Dragging Parents,” took first place in the Adventure A Division.

“The best thing about this event is the spirit award,” Wright said. “Our kids were cheering for the other teams. They cheered the whole entire time they were there. It’s a fun time, a really neat event.”

The Southwestern teams were awarded the Jackson O’Connell Spirit Award. It is given to the team that shows amazing spirit on and off the water.

According to the Dubuque Dragon Boat Association website, “this award exemplifies the spirit of dragon boating. Camaraderie. Team Spirit. Respect. Friendship through Paddling. This award celebrates the memory, spirit, and life of Jackson O'Connell. Jackson, a student from East Dubuque, loved everything about the water: from dragon boating, fishing, and wake boarding to swimming. The Dubuque Dragon Boat Association dedicates this award in memory of Jackson. Jackson was small in size but big in spirit and energy. He had a positive influence on everyone he came into contact with.”
Southwestern Schools is the first recipient of the Jackson O'Connell “Big Impact” Spirit Award.” Voting for the award is decided on by adult teams, committee organizers and other youth teams.

There were 47 teams at the 2015 event in Dubuque. Most were from the tri-state region, but there were a few teams from other countries. Wright said this was the largest  amount of junior division entries the event has had with 16 teams.
The Dubuque Dragon Boat Association (DDBA) was formed by a group of paddling enthusiasts in 1988 and incorporated in 1992 and reorganized in 1998 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of paddle sports and dragon boating in the tri-states. The group promotes “friendship through paddling” by encouraging building friendships around the world through the common interest, excitement, and healthy exercise associated with paddle sports especially dragon boat competition.

Wright first became interested in dragon boat racing when she took a Chinese culture class, heard of the boats and researched it. She knew a teacher in East Dubuque, Kathie Stierman, who participated in the Dubuque races and decided to get involved.

“This really ties well into what I’m teaching at school,” Wright said. “We have a lesson on Chinese culture.”
Wright said the event always starts with throwing rice into the water to please the water Gods. This is called “Awakening the Dragon.”

Event history

Over 2000 years ago Chu Yuan, poet, warrior and loyal aide to the emperor, fell victim to plots and deception and found himself out of favor at court. When the old emperor died, Chu Yuan was unjustly banished and wandered the countryside composing poems he hoped would be heard and heeded by the new emperor. His inconsolable desolation grew until one day he threw himself into the Mi Lo River. His devoted followers, learning of his death, rushed to search for his body. Fearing the fish might devour the body; they beat their paddles on the water and banged drums and gongs to frighten the fish. Today, athletes from around the world meet to commemorate Yuan's sacrifice for honor and justice in the form of Dragon Boat Racing.