The Big Girl Boat

Dragon boat season gets underway in each year in March. Once Daylight Saving Time kicks in, evening practices are back on the schedule – even if Saturday mornings are colder.

Returning to practice in March, I immediately realized my six weeks or so of practices in the Fall did not translate into muscle memory come the Spring. So I returned to the novice boat on Thursday evenings. The novice boats were once again coached by Coach John, who mixed technique and encouragement with inspiration.

During these evening practices I had yet another revelation. My paddling wardrobe consisted of my old running gear, some of which was older than some of the new recruits. So I decided it was time to invest in new, coordinated paddling attire. I spent much more than I like to admit at Athleta in Emeryville, but my orange and purple palette was coordinated and all manufactured in the current century.

After a few weeks of Thursday practices, I switched over to the regular Saturday morning practice. In addition to John, we had two primary coaches: Lisa Marie and Sue. And sometimes Linda would pitch in. Most Saturdays we can muster two boats for a practice – a dragon boat needs a minimum of 12 people.

As a newbie I was generally put on Lisa Marie’s boat. She’s the ‘tough coach’, as I quickly learned. If you don’t believe me, here’s what she posted on Facebook recently:

While I thought my paddling was acceptable on John’s boat, I quickly learned it was not acceptable on Lisa Marie’s boat. She would come back to where I was sitting and manhandle me into all sorts of positions that seemed unnatural.

In the coming weeks, with her hovering over me while adjusting my stroke, my relationship with her evolved into my most intimate relationship with a woman – aside from the woman at the security checkpoint at the Frankfurt airport.

While dragon boat paddling looks simple enough from afar, it can take years to master the stroke. And it’s not only about your stroke: to be effective you have to be in sync with the other 19 paddlers. But in my early days I felt I was being singled out for abuse. I resented it most when Lisa Marie would call out for me to pull out for ten strokes. My thinking was I just needed enough time to figure this stroking thing out. I’m a smart girl after all.

Rotate, lean forward 5 degrees, foot drive, square shoulders, reach, power, timing, head up, inside elbow up, bury the blade, breathe – but don’t over breathe, watch the stroker… it was a lot to take in.

In retrospect I realize paddling is like speech therapy. I was in speech therapy for years as a kid because I pronounced my ‘r’s as ‘w’s, which would be find if I lived in Boston, but I didn’t. Anyway, after about three years of drills and exercises, it finally all fell into place. I was just going to have to give it time.

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