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Preview: Dragon boats breathe fire into festival

Friday, September 05, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dragon boaters move through life to the beat of a different drummer.

The women's team of the Three Rivers Rowing Association dragon boat recreation league gears up for Saturday's race. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Dragon Boat

WHERE: South Side Riverfront Park
WHEN: 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Saturday

BONG! With each beat by the drummer sitting backward on the bow just behind the dragon's head -- BONG! -- the up to 10 pairs of paddlers in the 44-foot-long boat dig into the water in unison.

BONG! (Stroke.) BONG! (Stroke.) BONG! (Stroke.)

A strong crew can generate so much power and speed that the steersperson has to work to stay on his or her feet at the dragon's tail.

The dragons' "heartbeats" and the accompanying choruses of each crew's stroke counts -- "ONE! TWO! THREE! ..." -- will be the rhythm to the splashy soundtrack of the second Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at South Side Riverfront Park.

Like last year's, the free festival will be a celebration of Chinese culture and food as well as this centuries-old traditional racing. What's changed is that the dragon boats -- new to the three rivers last summer -- seem to have made themselves very much at home here.

The city Urban Redevelopment Authority used sister-city development funds to purchase the region's first two boats last summer -- one for the Three Rivers Rowing Association and one for the Steel City Rowing Club. The Sprout Fund later gave TRRA a second boat. Together the clubs worked to fill them with paddlers in time for the first festival, which the URA held last September on the North Shore to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pittsburgh's sister-city relationship with Wuhan, China.

This year's festival is much bigger than the last, according to its sponsors, which include the rowing clubs as well as the Greater Pittsburgh Sister Cities Association, the Pittsburgh Chinese School and Three Rivers Families with Children from China.

"We sort of want to bring the East to the West," says Sha Zhao, who is coordinating the festival with the South Side Chamber of Commerce and numerous other community groups. She also works as a consultant for the URA, which sees events like this as one way to internationalize the region.

The festival's Asian flavor will include Chinese Restaurant Association members cooking and selling delicacies such as moon cakes, which are served at this harvest moon time of year. As Zhao explains, "It's time for family to get together."

There will be Thai and Western foods as well. In addition to performances of the Chinese lion dance, Tai Chi and martial arts, there will be Indian classical and folk dancing, plus many children's activities. And the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute will be offering free fishing as well as sea kayak, canoe and bike trips for additional fees.

Still, the spotlight will belong to the dragon boats. At least 15 teams are expected to compete in 500-meter races. Some were formed by local companies and other groups just for the festival. Other crews will have been practicing for a season or more with the Three Rivers and Steel City clubs.

Also coming is a crew from the Washington area, the "DC Dragons," one of the teams in an increasingly robust national dragon boating scene.

"We have seen solid growth," says Gary Carsten, president of the United States Dragon Boat Association, who notes that cities that have gotten in on the action within the past year or two include Chicago, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Omaha and Superior, Wis.

The International Dragon Boat Federation, started in 1991, estimates that nearly 50 million people participate in competitions each year -- most of them in China and elsewhere in Asia, with 150,000 in Europe and 50,000 in North America.

Here in Pittsburgh, Steel City has focused on being a competitive traveling team. This season, the Steel City Dragons raced in the world's biggest dragon boat festival in Toronto and did well, with its "mixed" (men's and women's) team coming in 31st out of 124 teams. Members also raced in Cleveland's first festival and in St. Catharines, Ontario, as well as here in Pittsburgh, where the team was undefeated at the Boaters' Regatta. Member Bruce McClellan says the club will bring about 40 people to this festival to race in the various classes, including masters (over 40). He says the sport has been surprisingly popular with older people here, particularly women. "We've got people into their 60s and 70s."

TRRA, which has focused more on recreation, signed up 23 people for its eight-week spring league and 35 for the summer league. It introduced dozens of others to the sport in other ways, such as its "QuickStart," which allows a company or other group to start a team in just two days.

The association expects to bring to the festival some 50 of its recreational paddlers, some of whom are getting quite skilled. Paddling programs director Ben Ledewitz, who coaches dragon boaters at TRRA, says, "There's a lot more experience. They're really into it."

He says that with the fall season that starts right after the festival, TRRA will start a competitive team like Steel City's -- and hopes to also travel to Philadelphia to compete Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, TRRA is opening up its shorter fall recreation season (Sept. 15-Oct. 8) so that in addition to signing up for the whole thing, you can just show up on any Monday or Wednesday and go out on a dragon boat for $10. Both TRRA and Steel City will continue indoor practice through the winter, and newcomers of all ages are welcome.

A big part of this activity's appeal is that you can do it as a novice. But you can really get into it.

That's what happened to Kit Ayars, senior assistant to the provost at the University of Pittsburgh, who read a Post-Gazette story introducing the dragon boats and decided to try it last year. Now 45, she had figured she was too old to start a new sport, but everyone was starting from scratch with dragon boating. Now she's in her fourth season.

"I think the main attraction is being down on the river," she said after a recent practice. Besides being a chance to socialize with all kinds and ages of people, it's a great workout. "And we drink beer after -- I enjoy that," she adds with a laugh.

Even though she started as a person who had "never competed in anything physical," she now wants to join TRRA's travel team.

As she puts it with a big smile, "I've evolved."

For more information, visit the Web site or call 412-512-4880.

For more on dragon boating, check out and or call 412-231-8772.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.

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