Racing Dragons

By Gregory Pings, November 11, 2019
IT staff member medals in international dragon boat competition.

Joe Schlimmer can’t say this was the exact moment, but this early memory connects him to canoe racing and, ultimately, dragon boat racing.

“It was early spring. My brothers, some friends and I were racing on a river in our canoes,” he recalled. “As our boats approached an island, we paddled to the left and the others paddled to the right.”

As the other team glided down the river without incident, the Schlimmer brothers went over a dam.

“Our canoe tipped over. We pulled ourselves together, recovered, and we won the race. The adrenaline rush and euphoria from that experience is why I got into canoe racing,” explained Schlimmer, who works in endpoint systems for Ithaca College’s Information Technology group.

An Entirely Different Attraction

Canoe racing is a solo sport, even when you race with a partner. You train on your own most of the time, and the hours-long events are like marathons that test personal strength and character. Racers must maintain their physical and mental reserves throughout these contests.

“If you fall behind in a canoe race,” Schlimmer pointed out, “you have time to catch up.”

Dragon boat racing holds an entirely different attraction. It’s why Schlimmer joined the Team U.S.A. dragon boat team. This past August, the team competed against 4,000 athletes from 30 countries at the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Pattaya, Thailand, and took home several medals. 

Dragon boat racing boasts a 2,500-year history. The races are rooted in Chinese festivals where the people prayed for rainfall and celebrated the summer rice planting. The athletes row in large boats that fit 18-20 people and have decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails on either end. A drummer keeps time for the rowers, while a steerer controls the direction of the boat's movement. While the history may or may not inform each dragon boater in 2019, it does impact how the teams train, warm up and compete.

Schlimmer pointed out how the aggressive nature of a team’s warm-up sessions differs from the more mellow pre-stretch sessions at canoe races.

“Dragon boaters execute very aggressive dances and facial expressions during our warm ups,” he said. “Chanting and movements get our heart rates up.” The experience, according to Schlimmer, unifies the team. Paddlers must perform as a unit and maintain perfect timing with the rest of the team.

The Sum of its Parts

“I compete shoulder to shoulder with amazing athletes in the dragon boat,” Schlimmer observed. “This is more than a self challenge. I have to prove myself to my teammates, and accomplish something that will make the United States proud.”

Aristotle got it right when he said the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Unity within the dragon boat team informs everything each member does. When they enter the boat from the dock, for instance, everyone touches the drum stick before they board. The drum sets the pace and keeps the team together throughout the race.

“The touch signifies that you are one with the drum,” Schlimmer said. “In a dragon boat, I do not make adjustments that are perfect for me, as I would in a canoe race. I must adjust to what the rest of the team is doing.”

The race course distances range from 200 meters to two kilometers. The time is measured in seconds, not hours – significantly shorter than typical canoe courses.

“Dragon boaters don’t think about keeping a reserve of physical or mental energy during the race. We dump it all out on the course.”

Joy, Sadness, Anguish, Pride

The nature of these sprints demands an emotional commitment.

According to Schlimmer “When we do well, we are proud. When bad things happen, we experience anguish. If we lose a medal by 1/300th of a second, we are sad.”

“Early in the championships,” he added, “we watched other teams jump up and down, cry, and hug when they won medals. We thought we’d keep our cool when our time came. We just thought we’d be more aloof, more in control.”

Their reserve fell apart when the judges announced the results of a two-kilometer race: gold for Team U.S.A.

“We just lost control,” Schlimmer said.

Pure joy: It is his best memory from the World Championships in Pattaya.