This Sunday, 13 teams will compete in the second annual Capitol City Dragon Boat Race at Adado Riverfront Park in Lansing. That’s two more than last year, when the inaugural race was widely seen as a novelty. Dragon boat racing started in China more than 2,000 years ago, and its popularity is growing around the world.
6:15 a.m. Dawn on the Grand River. The eastern sun sheds dusky rays on the water as the dragon boat nears the shore.
Rob Flanders steps onto the dock to greet me. In the half-light I can see his white hair but not his flaming red goatee. He’s the captain of Team Dragonheart. As he secures his 40-foot vessel, I notice the distinctive dragon head ornament is missing. Flanders tells me this is a Hong Kong style boat. The head is detachable.
“And a Hong Kong is used in international competitions, it’s a lot more popular boat,” Flanders says. “The boats that we race at the Capital City (Dragon Boat Race) are called a Taiwan. The Taiwan have the head already mounted.”
Dragonheart’s dragon head will be put on the boat before practice. But now, it’s time for physical and mental preparation. Flanders leads me and his crew of 10 through morning calisthenics.
We assemble in the boat; life vests on, paddles at the ready; and in my case, a microphone and camera too. Standing commandingly at the stern, Flanders starts us off with a warm-up.
Ten paddles ply the waters as one. This is the rhythm and focus that delivered Dragonheart its Division One gold medal. It’s all in the shoulders, not the arms. Good rotation is key. I forget that, and my forearms are paying for it. Flanders watches our technique and spurs us on.
Rob Flanders must have boating in his blood. His surname comes from northern Belgium, a lowlands known for scenic canals. As he steers us beneath a bridge, Flanders wants more effort. He calls for a power stroke.
For a moment, we seem to be racing the train that shudders by off our starboard side. After an hour, our run is over.
When we’re back on shore, I find crewman Larry Stegman, who sat at the front of the bow as the pacesetter. I ask him what he thinks of dragon boating’s rising popularity.
LARRY STEGMAN: I’d like to believe it’s gone from unique novelty to something people are getting excited about. Certainly we at Dragonheart are excited about it. We went down to camp in Florida, we bought a boat; so I guess you could say we caught the bug. We’re seeing more and more people, once we get them in the boat they get pretty passionate about it. It’s pretty exciting once you get out there.
KEVIN LAVERY: How do you mentally psyche yourself up before a race and while you’re racing?
STEGMAN: I actually usually sit down and meditate for a couple of minutes before the race. We say that your bench is your office and you have to do your best out there. Every time I get in the boat in a race, I’ve got butterflies that feel like dragons in my stomach. But once we get out there, the adrenaline starts to kick and it all happens, and it’s kind of beautiful for the team to come together.
LAVERY: That sounds like a sequel: “Dragon Stomach!”
STEGMAN: Yeah, I guess it is a sequel...Dragon Stomach.”
Indeed, it does take a strong stomach and a stronger will to triumph in dragon boating. Captain Rob Flanders says he wants his team to have conditioning, skill and heart. That’s how titles are defended. That’s how dynasties are built.