How to train your dragon boat team: A&S college teams unite for podium finish at Canadian Dragon Boat Championships

September 12, 2023 by Christine Elstub - A&S News

For students looking for a novel way to get fit and make friends, U of T’s dragon boat teams may be the answer. Fresh off their podium finish at the Canadian Dragon Boat Championships, where they took home gold and bronze in the under-24 (U24) open and women’s divisions, the New Dragons and University College Dragon Boat Club (UCDBC) are recruiting new members. The teams will be heading to Italy in 2024 to compete together at the Club Crew World Championships.

The two college-affiliated teams joined forces after the pandemic as a way to increase membership. The teams now train and compete together under the New Dragons Racing Club (NDRC), a competitive club co-founded and co-coached by U of T alum and former New Dragons member Benjamin Choi.

students in a dragon boat near centre island
UCDBC competes in the GWN Dragon Boat Challenge by Marilyn Bell Park. Photo: UCDBC.

Choi’s dragon boat journey began during his first year as a graduate student in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, when a fellow gymgoer invited him to join the New Dragons. “After I joined the practices, I became hooked,” he recalls. “The people were really fun, and I started to make a lot of new friends.”

A group of people with medals.
Three generations of UCDBC captains pose with their medals at the Canadian Dragon Boat Championships. Photo: UCDBC.

Before joining, Choi was only vaguely familiar with dragon boat racing. The sport originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, when villagers would participate in ritualized dragon boat races as a way to ward off misfortune and encourage favourable harvest conditions. Many of the sport’s ancient traditions, such as decorating the boats with ornate dragon heads and tails and summoning the spirit of the dragon to the water before races, are still practiced today.

The boats are powered by up to 20 paddlers who paddle in unison, requiring exceptional physical strength and coordination. Despite the physical challenge involved, students without any previous paddling experience are encouraged to join.

“You do not need experience at all,” says third-year Innis College member Natalie Duarte, co-captain of the New Dragons during the 2022-23 season. “Even if you don’t start off with that much general fitness, if you have the commitment and the mindset to go for what you want, you will surpass your own expectations.”

Past UCDBC co-captain Mikhail Lobo agrees. “I’d never been to a gym or touched any weights before I joined the team,” says Lobo, who recently graduated from Arts & Science as a member of Trinity College and is now in his first year of a master’s degree. “The trainers taught me how to lift weights with proper form, and now it’s one of my favourite things to do.”

Training is year-round and consists of two seasons. The dry season — when temperatures are too cold to be on the water — lasts from September to April and consists of mostly indoor training designed to help team members get stronger for paddling. Then, beginning in May, the teams get out on the water three to five times a week.

“We do our best to teach new recruits how to paddle and give them feedback to help them improve,” says former UCDBC co-captain Nathaniel Vo. “There is a lot of technical stuff you’ve got to learn, and it takes time and practice.”

students in a dragon boat near Milton On
The New Dragons competing in the Milton Dragon Boat Festival this past spring. Photo: Timothy Mack. 

Vo, who graduated from Arts & Science in 2022 as a member of Trinity College and is now pursuing a master’s degree, had never paddled before joining UCDBC as a second-year student. From a complete novice, he recently competed for Team Canada at the 2023 World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Thailand, where Canada took home 52 gold medals — more than any other country.

Witnessing such progress is one of the most satisfying aspects of the sport for former New Dragons co-captain Julie Tang, a third-year New College member. “Seeing our team of new paddlers go from not being able to hold a paddle properly to winning competitions and standing on the podium — it’s really rewarding.”

For Lobo, it’s the community. “I’ve met some of the most amazing people in my life on this team — lifelong friends who I will never forget.” This has also been true for Choi, who is still close friends with many of his former New Dragons teammates.

Choi attributes these enduring friendships to the nature of the sport. “The training is tough. The competitions are even tougher because of the emotions involved. To go through those highs and lows with each other, it’s hard to imagine any other activity creating a tighter bond.”

Whether it’s dragon boat racing or any other extracurricular activity, Tang says it’s important for students to find their community on campus. “There are so many undergraduate clubs and teams at U of T. You have to find an environment in which you genuinely enjoy being with the people. I found my place in dragon boat.”