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Dragon boat racing, with its unlikely rise and massive Denver festival, is adapting to include everyone

Denver’s dragon-boat race is still about Asian culture, but it’s also a growing competitive sport attracting racers with disabilities who plan to compete at nationals in Colorado Springs

Daniel Jeffrey pushes off from the dock during Dragon Boat practice at Sloan's Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. This year's Dragon Boat races will feature three teams made up of persons with various disabilities. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Despite recent back surgery and a left leg lost in a military accident, Jataya Taylor can’t stop smiling. 

She’s one of the regulars on a recent evening at Sloan’s Lake as her team trains for the upcoming dragon-boat race. Taylor sits in a newly retrofitted blue stadium seat with a special leg strap to keep her stump in place when she leans and moves around.

“We just made it today,” beams Taylor, who joined her first dragon-boat team after her leg was amputated two years ago. “We had an incident last week. My seat came loose, and I fell to the side and my stump went up the middle and I almost fell out. And the week before that, my seat fell backwards. We’re hoping this is the one.”

The rag-tag crew from Lakewood-based Adaptive Adventures is racing two boats at Saturday’s Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, which is in its 19th year. They’ll be joined by about 50 other teams of amateur racers, many from corporate-sponsored teams. At least one other team has members who have disabilities, Comcast’s Xfinabilities, and that’s also helping the growth of the sport nationwide as Paralympians learn how the sport can be adapted for diverse abilities.

Rich Ochiuzzo, left, and Jataya Taylor chat as they wait for dragon-boat practice to start at Sloan’s Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The Denver festival has become one of the most popular in the U.S. with more than 100,000 people attending the two-day event. Organizers credit the Asian-themed performances and cultural activities that attract crowds. Every year, more people want in — Denver organizers had to limit the number of teams based on available 21-person boats.

But the unlikely rise of the sport may be due more to corporate team-building exercises and competition than its Asian origins. Next month, Adaptive Adventures’ two teams head to Colorado Springs, host of the U.S. Dragon Boat Festival National Championships. Winners will move on to compete for the world title next year in France.

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“It is, as you can imagine, a fringe sport. But it’s growing rapidly,” said Aaron Soroka, chief operating officer of GWN Dragon Boat, the for-profit company that owns and promotes dragon-boat races in 10 cities nationwide, including Colorado Springs. “A lot of the participants start on corporate teams. Once they try the sport, they love it and sign up on competitive teams.”

The Colorado Springs event is expected to attract 1,250 athletes, many traveling from out of state. The event won’t have an Asian cultural village but it will have a health and wellness area, an Athletes’ Village and food trucks. 

“A lot of communities are seeing this (festival) as an opportunity to drive heads and beds and promote wellness,” Soroka said. “There are very low barriers to entry and we’re seeing a spread outside of the traditional markets with very large Chinese or Asian populations.”

The growth of the sport doesn’t bother Denver Dragon Boat Festival co-founder Ding-Wen Hsu, even if events elsewhere in America play down the Asian heritage.

“It’s different than just a bunch of people in a boat because it’s a dragon boat. It’s a very colorful boat. People ask, ‘What is this?’ and then they learn about the culture piece,” Hsu said. “And every year, we have the story of Qu Yuan in the program book. If people want to know, and I’ve been asked many, many times, we just flip to that page and say, ‘This is the origin of this sport.’”

Chris Wiegand of Adaptive Adventures steers his team’s boat during dragon-boat practice at Sloan’s Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver. This year’s Colorado Dragon Boat Festival races will feature three teams that include people with various disabilities. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“I knew people in Denver are crazy about sports events”

According to Chinese legend — and dragon-boat organizers everywhere — the sport started 2,000 years ago in China after patriotic poet Qu Yuan was exiled and drowned himself in the Miluo River in despair.

Locals, who were touched by Yuan’s poetry, got into a long boat to find the body. They weren’t successful, but with every stroke, a drummer banged a drum to scare away evil spirits. 

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of seven national holidays in China. And it’s the most active one, which is a reason why Hsu picked the sport.

“I knew people in Denver are crazy about sports events,” said Hsu, president and co-owner of engineering firm Pacific Western Technologies in Wheat Ridge. “I wanted to do something because all of the activities were just within the Chinese American community. We didn’t have anything that reached outside of our community.”

Ding-Wen Hsu felt a sporting event would provide more visibility to Denver’s Asian American community, so she co-founded the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival. The event attracts more than 100,000 spectators and will celebrate its 19th year at Sloan’s Lake on July 27, 2019. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun).

Looking back at 18 years of Denver dragon-boat races, Hsu feels the event is doing exactly what she and her husband Tai-Dan had hoped when they first discussed the idea in their car about 20 years ago. Back then, Hsu, who had moved to Denver in 1978, felt invisible. 

She wanted the Asian American community to have a voice, unlike Japanese Americans during World War II who were sent to internment camps, she said.

“People called us the model minority. It’s putting us against the rest of the minority groups because we’re the model minority, so others are not. And they’re saying, ‘OK so you think you’re better than us?’ You know, we didn’t call ourselves the model minority,” she said. “Our culture taught us to be quiet, to be cooperative, to be invisible. We can’t stay invisible because if we’re invisible, we don’t exist.” 

Coincidentally, in another part of town, best friends Howie Solow and John Chin discussed a similar idea and picked dragon-boat racing because the competition set it apart from other festivals. The trio got together, tapped their connections, found sponsors and recruited racers for the slower flag-catching boats and faster Hong-Kong style racing. They held the first festival in August 2001. 

“Ding, John and I took videos of dragon-boat races from elsewhere and went to the various Asian councils, to show them, in an effort to solicit their support,” said Solow, who teaches at Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu in Boulder. “The first year we had 16 teams and most of the teams came from Asian organizations.”

Chris Wiegand of Adaptive Adventures gives a demonstration on paddle technique during dragon-boat practice at Sloan’s Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

On the morning of the first event in Denver, the meticulously organized Hsu nearly had a panic attack. It was the first time in more than a year’s worth of preparation that she questioned herself. 

“I thought, ‘Oh no. I never take risks like this. What if nobody shows up?’ I promised (there would be) 3,000 people,” Hsu recalled. “All this effort. How do I face my community after they did so much hard work? A few — actually, all of them – worked hard, harder than their paid jobs. One person told me, ‘You know, this quarter, I didn’t file any taxes because I didn’t make any money. I spent all my time working on Dragon Boat Festival.’” 

People came — more than 15,000 of them that first year. Then-Denver Mayor Wellington Webb showed up. The five food vendors ran out of food within the first hour and kept going back and forth to their restaurants for more.

“They finally said, ‘We don’t have any more food, this is it,’” Hsu said. “By one o’clock, they ran out of food. But it was great because it was better, much better than our expectation.”

Hsu and Solow still work the festival together. Their partner, Chin, died last year.

Beyond culture — and maybe to the Olympics

As the Denver event morphed to include more corporate sponsors, attract larger crowds and expand beyond Asian participants, so did the rise of the sport nationwide. 

The United States Dragon Boat Federation became official in 2000, unifying long-time festivals in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The USDBF is the governing body for the sport and oversees four regions. Colorado is part of the Midwest and Mountain region and is overseen by the American Dragon Boat Association, which debuted its first race in 1988 with 11 U.S. teams. This summer, the organization’s event schedule lists more than 50 events

Ashley Graumann waits for dragon-boat practice to start at Sloan’s Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

GWN Dragon Boat, which started the Colorado Springs race four years ago, now runs 10 events in different cities each year. It also participates in 25 community events nationwide. 

For GWN, short for Great White North, the racing events and festivals are key to its own growth because that’s where people see what’s possible.

“We supply the boats, paddles and life jackets. Within an hour of practice, you can compete at some level,” Soroka said. “We still have community teams, too, because that’s the future of the sport. They’ll be out in the water and for someone who gets hooked, this is a great opportunity to see where (they) can go.”

It’s not an Olympic sport, at least not yet, he added. “There are people well above us working hard to get it into the Olympics. I think it’s still a ways off, but there is a movement and efforts.”

If not the Olympics, dragon-boat racing is making its way into the Paralympics. The International Dragon Boat Federation set up guidelines for para-athletes in 2017 and added an adaptive classification. 

Lakewood’s Adaptive Adventures plans to send both of its Denver teams to the national competition in Colorado Springs next month. It also recruited other adaptive teams from out of state.

“There will be 11 teams with disabilities,” said Chris Wiegand, Adaptive’s Paddlesports and Cycling Manager. “Now, because it is paradragon, it’s going to be eligible for World Championships and Paralympics. It’s moving in that direction.”

Gary Verrazono checks his paddle to make sure the harness is sitting correctly on his shoulder before dragon-boat practice at Sloan’s Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

There’s a competitive streak among some members of the Adaptive team, like Gary Verrazono, who lost an arm and a leg in 2012 when a machine fell on him while he was working as a manager for NASCAR. This is the fourth year he’s racing and he’s now on Adaptive’s board. He’s also added sports.

“And now I do rock climbing this year, whitewater rafting, skydiving. Nothing is going to stop me,” said Verrazono, laughing as he responds with a “No,” on whether he did any of these activities before his accident. “But I think that there’s a reason why this happened this way. Because now I’m out mentoring others, and letting them know, look, just because you’re missing limbs doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.”

Another teammate, Bev Davis, has had multiple sclerosis for 30 years. The Littleton resident was interested in dragon-boat racing and attended a few of the Denver festivals for fun. She didn’t think she could do it because she fatigues easily and is sensitive to the heat. Plus, she can’t drive, she said.

Chris Wiegand of Adaptive Adventures, right, and Danelle Rager help Bev Davis into the boat during dragon-boat practice at Sloan’s Lake on July 16, 2019, in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

She marvels that a dragon-boat festival board member bought a cooling vest that she could wear on the water, and that a volunteer she met at a potluck offered to bring her to practice every week. The exercise helps ease some of her MS symptoms and she makes smaller strokes so she doesn’t get as tired. 

“So it was just like magic,” Davis said. “And I love it. And this is my third year.”

While the Denver festival continues to grow, it has just two staff members, operates on a shoestring budget and relies on hundreds of volunteers. Regardless of the rising popularity of the sport, co-founder Solow said the cultural aspect will always be an equal focus to the boat race at the Denver event. 

“I just hope that it still maintains some of that cultural connection and doesn’t become a pure sport for the sake of sport,” Solow said. “There’s a history, a tradition and culture that surrounds dragon boats that gives it a vibrancy that other competitive sports don’t have.” 


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