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Dragon Boats rule lake as racers paddle for winnings

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The 14th Annual Dragon Boat Race Festival in Flushing Meadows Corona Park made for days of tailgating, competing and networking for the 50,000 spectators and business people who participated in the races Saturday and Sunday. The boats were long and narrow and painted as though they were dragon tails. On each boat was a drummer, pumping up the more than 12 paddlers on board.Companies from Citibank to Verizon and the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office to the TimesLedger Newspapers sponsored the races last weekend on the waters of Meadow Lake in the park."The weather was good, we have record attendance, record teams (and) we are getting lots of support from the community and sponsors," said Henry Wan, organizer of the festival. "That's what it takes to make a successful event, so we're happy about that."The dragon boat races are steeped in cultural folklore. It was said that the races stemmed from the death of poet and reformer Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the third century B.C. in a suicidal protest against the emperor. In a rescue attempt, locals boarded boats and beat drums to keep the water dragons from eating his body.From this story the international racing phenomenon was born. The Flushing races are considered the U.S. national championship and are home to more than $60,000 in cash prizes.Elia Wong, from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, said she was pleased to see there were more spectators than in previous years."A lot of people think it's fun and are bringing more people," she said. "You can see how it multiplies."She was a paddler in one of her organization's four boats."It's very difficult to find the time to practice together," she said. The weekends she and her fellow rowers spent on the water brought them closer together, she said."You are together with your colleagues and your friends," she said.Over at the Verizon tent, Stanley Eng and Kin Chan said they had practiced together about six times before competing on the water Sunday. Unfortunately, they were not big winners in their division, the mixed corporate sponsors."All the races we had were within seconds of each other," Eng said. "It was pretty much anybody's race."Another Verizon employee, George San, was busy at another end of the park, alongside the stage where different cultural artists were performing. During the weekend a dragon dancer, martial artists and musicians took the stage to entertain the crowds.From his vantage point, San was coordinating the amateur radio operators who were responsible for communications among the judges, emergency services and spectators in need of their assistance.Gail Bloom, another member of the club, said there was a lost child, an illness and a fire on the overpass that required the radio operators' attention.For the most part, the group was there "to help out on behalf of the Red Cross - it really hones our skills," San said. "It's a festive event. It's in our backyard."Rookies at the Citibank tent were busy cooking up chicken, hamburgers and veggie burgers after their races Sunday."This is Citibank's first year competing," said an employee, who could not be named due to company policy. "We got together a month ago and we started training."The employee, who called himself the captain of the team, said that within a month, the team really grew in strength. He previously had competed on a team with another bank."Everyone had a great time," he said. "We did incredible. Miracles do happen."Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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