What do you get when you cross a dragon with a boat?
Depending on your imagination, you could get a lot of things. But the first thing you'd get, "dragon boating," is more than just a badass-sounding compound word. It's a 1,000-year old competitive water sport that has been gaining more and more attention at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the last few years.
The only college in Chicago with its own dragon boating team, UIC puts out a call every year for new paddlers to join the co-ed UIC Pyro Paddlers team and competes in two dragon-boating racing events held in the summer in Chinatown and St. Charles.
The team first came together in 2008--around the same time UIC joined the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce--when the chamber asked UIC to put together a dragon boating team for Chinatown's annual Chicago Dragon Boat Race for Literacy.
Elvin Chan, assistant director of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, said the Pyro Paddlers' team numbers change every year, depending on the availability of interested paddlers to attend the events as well as the one or two practices held before the races.
Because the team is still fairly new to UIC, Chan said his resource center is "always open to bringing in new blood." New members are not required to have any previous paddling experience.
"We know, as new members, when would be the last time you would happen to have a dragon boat in your backyard?" Chan said.
A maximum of 20 people is needed to fill the longboat designed to look like a dragon, complete with a giant dragon head at the helm of the boat.
Being able to communicate and coordinate with teammates quickly is key during a dragon-boat race, which often only lasts about two minutes. Paddlers sit in pairs and work together to propel their longboats forward to the beat of a boat drummer, who sits backward on the boat and sets the pace of the paddlers' canoe-style strokes with a drum beat. Another teammate known as a "flag puller" grabs the flag at the finish line when the boat has finished the race.
Biochemistry major and senior Kevin Chiem, 21, said he loves dragon boating because it is so easy for new members to pick up the sport and do well as long as they're willing to work hard. Success in dragon-boat races, he said, has more to do with a team's ability to keep its coordination and composure during a race than it does with previous experience.
His co-captain Jenny Korn, a doctorate candidate student in communications who has previously competed on dragon-boat racing teams in Boston and Alabama, agreed.
"You don't have to be strong, necessarily, you have to be in sync," Korn said. "If you're out of sync, no matter how strong you are--that's it, you're going to slow the boat down, and you're going to lose."
UIC placed third out of 26 teams and advanced to the quarterfinals at last year's Chinatown race, eventually placing seveth overall.
Chan and Korn said the races are a great opportunity for the team to showcase UIC, especially at the Chinatown event, which is usually attended by more than 10,000 people. "We do a good job of representing UIC and putting up a good front for them," Korn said. "We're proud of our school: Before each race, we scream, '1, 2, 3, UIC!' and then we go out and row."
Korn said it speaks well of UIC that the university has been so supportive of the sport by funding the team's competition and transportation fees. Korn said she eventually would like to raise enough awareness about dragon boating on campus that enough people join to justify the purchase of their own boats.
"I think we'll eventually have enough people to support two boats--one boat that's more competitive and serious, and one that's more laid-back," Korn said. "I do think that can happen once people get to know UIC as a place for dragon boating."
UIC's Pyro Paddlers hosts a social for interested and experienced paddlers at 4 p.m. Friday in 200 Addams Hall on campus. See the UIC Pyro Paddlers in action at their race on June 8 in St. Charles and on July 13 in Chinatown.
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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