Dragon boat rowers sprint to victory in Meadow Lake

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Stroking furiously to the staccato beat of drums, racers streaked across Meadow Lake at the 12th Annual Dragon Boat Festival in Flushing Meadows Corona Park last weekend.

About 30,000 people attended the event, billed as the largest multicultural celebration in the city, according to festival organizers,

“It’s such an adrenaline rush in this sport, comparable to sprint racing,” said James Ma, a 37-year-old Forest Hills resident, former member of the U.S. National Dragon Boat team and current member of the Dah Chong Hong team. “The first team that gets off the starting block is usually the team that finishes first.”

Eighty teams competed in 250, 500 and 1,000-meter events of varying skill levels. When the two-day festival was over, the New York Wall Street Dragons Cultural Foundation was declared winner of the U.S. Open Championship in the 1000-meter even, while the Philadelphia Men’s Dragonboat Team won the 250- meter championship.

The race dates back to the third century B.C. Years after being banished from his home province, Qu Yun, a Chinese reformer and poet, jumped into the Mi Lo River when he learned the province had been invaded.

Locals rushed into their boats in an attempt to save Yun, but the poet drowned. Fearing fish and water dragons would eat his body, the rescuers beat their drums, splashed their paddles and threw rice dumplings into the water to tide over the predators.

In recent decades, the race has been transformed from a Chinese tradition to an international competition. The sport’s advocates are pushing to have dragon boat racing tried out as an Olympic event in the 2012 games. If the Olympic Committee decides to allow the sport, the event could very well take place in Flushing Meadows, since the New York City Olympic bid proposal combines Meadow and Willows Lakes into the games’ rowing site.

The $10,000 prize for championship winners is the highest for a dragon boat in the country, making the Flushing Meadows race arguably the most competitive in the United States.

But this year’s event was in many ways more like a county fair than an national competition. Attendees barbecued, played in games of chance and leisurely watched the races from the shore of Meadow Lake.

On Saturday, the opening ceremonies included a Chinese dragon, guided by a group of kung fu artists. The dragon, a sign of good luck in China, would shake its head at the various teams, blessing them. The dragon also blessed curious children staring at its brightly colored mane.

Charles Yu, an Elmhurst business consultant who attended the event for the first time with his wife, Kate, compared the race to a competition he had seen in Hong Kong, the mecca of the sport.

“Here it’s kind of more natural,” he said. “People just come and do whatever they like. In China, they are more organized.”

Yu had never attended the Flushing Meadows event before.

“It’s not an easy thing for an event of this kind to last more than a decade,” Yu said. “We came to see why it is so popular.”

Although an Asian tradition, the sport has increasingly attracted both more diverse participants and more diverse spectators in recent years, according to festival organizer Henry Wan.

Andrea Malloy, who has helped organize events along the Astoria waterfront, came to the races to study creative uses of the city’s lakes and rivers.

Malloy contrasted the races with more typical events on city waterfronts.

“We tend to have something with just boats on the water,” she said. “They have dragons. You can’t get more interesting than that.”

As it has become more popular, Dragon Boat racing has attracted more and more women.

Women in Canoe, which was once the women’s U.S. national champion, took third in the mixed division.

Sandy Wang, the team’s captain, explained that the team is trying to get breast cancer survivors to join the sport. Wang said a recent study dispelled the common idea that rowing is not a good exercise for women who have been treated for cancer.

“Anybody who wants to can come and do this,” Wang said. “We’ve had people who were athletes, people who were couch potatoes.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

Updated 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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