Wednesday, September 12, 2012
The Portland Dragon Boat races are a big event; like Victoria, it’s a two-day affair. The first day is a random grab-bag of races; teams will compete against teams of entirely different calibers, just to determine which division they should race in for the semi-finals.
My team, Bridge City Paddling Club, had FIVE boats in these races! We had a blue and gold women’s team, a blue and gold mixed team, and we finally got to fully debut the Bridge City Men. Where we filled half the boat with guest paddlers up in Victoria, we had almost our entire compliment of men for our Open Division race…. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day started early. For Bridge City Paddling, we arrive as a team. So even though my first race wasn’t until well after 9:00 AM, because the women had an early race (in theory) we all showed up at 7:00 AM. Then we got to wait, because it wasn’t terribly organized and they hadn’t finished placing the starting and finishing buoys – and they wouldn’t finish setting up until almost an hour and a half after the race was supposed to start!
But finally the races started. We cheered on our women’s teams. Bridge City Blitz Blue, our fast boat, on which I was paddling, was up early. We paddled out and easily dominated the race with a time of 2:03.42, though we were up against at least one team that we’d competed against in the Salem Dragon Boat Race finals.
Then, just after lunch, it was game time. It was the Open Division semi-finals, and I was nervous. Any confidence I had was tempered by knowing the heat we were up against. Men from the strongest teams in the Pacific Northwest had teamed up to field boats; could we compete with that?
Well, we were able to. Partially due to favorable seeding, we were able to take second in our semi-final with a time of 1:48.90, and only the top two teams advanced. It was a mad, furious race, full of splashing and energy, and we barely finished with second, but we'd made it..
Afternoon came, and we dominated another mixed race with a time of 1:58.75. Good times.
I joked several times that night that I was tired, and yet I couldn’t account for more than about 12 minutes of exercise. (Each race lasted about two minutes, plus two minutes or so of paddling to get to the start line and back from the finish.)
The next day came too early, but the whole club again showed up to cheer our women’s teams. Then, in the late morning, we lined up for the mixed semi-final, from which the top two teams would advanced to the division championship and the bottom two would join the fight for the division consolation prize. We won, and I say that because it was unremarkable and, at least for the 12 guys on the boat, all our minds were on the open division race yet to come. A time of 1:56.98 is nothing to sneeze at, and yet I could barely recall the race.
So then it was time to line up for the open division championship. As men, we were all quiet. None of the light joviality was there, as we sometimes had before other races. We all, as a group, wanted to win. This was what we’d been training for all year, and we were up against stiff competition – the favorite in this race with the combination of the Kai Ikaika men and the Portland Fire Dragons’ men, by far the two top teams in Portland.
We paddled out and lined up, knowing that we had only coming in second in our race, but determined to make this race count. The announcer lined us up – and we were off!
It felt like the longest race, and yet it was a blur. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, only one other boat, but it was definitely ahead of us. I kept seeing flashes of color, though I was focused ahead and only on timing and technique, that suggested that other boats weren’t far off. The team did exactly what we’d hoped to do. We had good timing, we had great power, and our technique was there. We knew we didn’t come in first – but had we placed? Had we earned a medal?
We had. We came in a solid second, which I will accept since we made the team that came in first work for it. We made them work hard, and they earned it, but third place was as far behind us as we were to first. We made a solid showing of it, and we held our heads high, with a remarkable time of 1:46.27.
The rest of the race was lining up to be a disappointment in the face of that excitement. And yet it managed not to be. Despite racing in the B division (of A through E), Bridge City Blitz Blue was right where we needed to be. In the face of tough competition, we just weren’t a A division team, yet. So we went out for one more race, the B division final. We got lined up, and we were off! Once again, as in Victoria, we seemed to fall behind early.
But then something magical happened. We hit our stride. We hit our pace. We hit our power. And we worked, one stroke at a time, to recover our ground. We went from fourth pace to third, third place to second, and we felt good, we felt strong… and the race was over. We didn’t know where we’d ended up, only that we’d put everything into it that we could.
We got back to the dock and met up with our coach, still unsure of how we placed. He started by thanking us for the year of practice, for trying our hardest, for being a team. He told us that, no matter what, he was proud of what we’d accomplished. But then… then he told us that he was even more proud that we’d taken first! With a time of 1:59.08, we'd edged our way into the lead and won by less than 3/10ths of a second!
The cheer that went through our huddle was the most heartfelt I’d heard in a long time. We’d worked for it, we wanted it, we did everything – and we got it. Winning with those conditions felt GOOD.
One side effect of winning the division championship was that it meant our day wasn’t over. We, as a team, qualified for the end-of-the-day Guts to Glory race. While all the races thus far were 500 meters, the Guts to Glory was a 2000 meter race around the Marquam and Hawthorne bridges. At the end of the day, after racing and racing, our Women’s Blue team qualified and our Mixed Blue team qualified.
And it started with the ladies. They piled into the boat, lined up, and, TEN MINUTES later, took second in that race. What no other team realized, though, is that, for the mixed race, all our ladies came from the Women’s Blue boat. That meant that eight of those strong women knocked an endurance race out of the park, pulled up to the dock, and got on the boat to do it again.
We were less successful. What hurt us was that there was confusion among the eight boats participating as to the coarse, so the first two teams cut a corner. The third boat through almost did, then swung around, and, in the fourth position, we started to, but then we realized we needed to swing around as well and that just killed our velocity. The boat died in the water as we suddenly changed course, and our line around the bridge pilings was extremely wide. We got passed by several boats. We started to make up ground, but it was getting crowded on the water. We pulled, and strained, and paddled hard, but we ended up in sixth place. But you know what? At the end of the race, we were all energized. I think if we’d run the same race everyone else had, we’d have made a better showing of it. But this race was for fun, and fun was had, and 9:27:27 is not a bad time for 2000 meters!
After putting the boats away we distributed medals. I ended up with a gold and a silver, the best showing yet from any race. But more importantly, I’d scrubbed the memory of the race from last year.