ASHVILLE - The United States placed third in this year's International Dragon Boat Federation World Nations Championships Women's 2000-meter event with a little help from a local woman.
From July 19-29, Louise Wolanske of Ashville and 350 other Americans on the U.S. National Team traveled to Szeged, Hungary to compete against teams from 30 other countries in the sport of dragon boat racing.
The U.S. team is shown posing in front of a museum in Szeged, Hungary, prior to the opening of the World Nations Championship.
Submitted photos | Photos courtesy of the IDBF World Nations Championship 2013 Facebook page
dragon boat racing is a sport which few from Chautauqua County may have heard of, but is becoming popular in other parts of the world, including a few major American cities.
The dragon boat is deeply embedded in China's culture, with each boat having an ornately carved dragon's head at the bow and a tail in the stern. The hull is painted with the dragon's scales. The paddles symbolically represent the claws. In IDBF Sport Racing, there are generally 18-20 paddlers per standard sized dragon boat, and 8-10 paddlers in the small boat, plus a drummer and a helm.
The races are a colorful spectacle, with at least two boats competing against each other over distances from 200 to 2,000 meters and above. Not only are strength, endurance and skill important, but teamwork and harmony of purpose.
Since the formation of the IDBF, the sport has spread rapidly throughout the world. There are nearly 50 million participants in China; more than 300,000 in the UK and Europe, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Russia; 90,000 in Canada and the U.S. and several thousands in Australia and New Zealand.
Closer to home, the city of Buffalo just had its second annual dragon boat racing community festival in June. It attracted 54 corporate teams, after having only 14 teams in 2012.
After involving herself in the sport for two years, Wolanske traveled by herself to Hungary, before meeting up with her soon-to-be teammates in Szeged.
According to Wolanske, the city was beautiful, but her focus was on getting ready for her races.
"The racing events, in total, took four days," Wolanske said. "However, we spent much of our free time practicing, because our team had never practiced together before."
According to Wolanske, the U.S. team was comprised of participants from all over the nation, who had qualified for the events as individual paddlers. The few days they spent in Hungary before the event were the first and only occasions they had to practice together.
"The practice time was phenomenal," Wolanske said. "It was an Olympic site, and it was perfect. The countryside was gorgeous, and the people were all so wonderful."
However, Wolanske did get one day to tour Szeged before her races, and she said it was like nothing she had ever seen before.
"In 1992, the town was flooded - it was totally gone," Wolanske said. "When they rebuilt the place, instead of building individual homes, they built these gorgeous condos, and most of the population lives downtown. They have trains, trams, bicycles, cars and buses, and just watching everyone get around was wonderful. If you're over 65 or over, you get to ride public transportation for free. They wash their streets at night - every corner had a common area where children were playing, even late at night, because it's 100 degrees during the day, so the families are trying to take advantage of their short summers. It was like the 1930s America, everyone sitting outside and being neighborly. It's a memory I never expected."
DRAGON BOAT RACING
At the conclusion of the races, Wolanske walked away with four bronze medals, three for triple third-place finishes in individual events, and one for placing third overall at the conclusion of the championships.
She participated in the women's over-60 2000-meter race, where she came in third to Canada and winner Australia. After the U.S. men's open team lost a paddler, Wolanske was asked to fill in, and she went on to win additional bronze medals in the men's open 200m and 500m races.
"All I said was, 'thank God we came in third,'" Wolanske said. "I wanted a medal so badly. I wanted the U.S. to medal - I wanted to be first, but we couldn't, even though we tried as hard as we could. I just wanted the United States to be on the podium and be represented, and we were, each time."
Wolanske believes that next time around, the U.S. has a chance to win gold.
"We broke ground," Wolanske said. "We'll do better next year. We have a lot of ideas on how to get better. We need more clinics together before we go over again - the Canadians and Australians had four clinics together over the course of the year that all lasted for a week each - we had two hours. But we did okay considering, and I was very pleased with how everything went, and earning a few medals to keep will always remind me of how wonderful it was."
Wolanske's next rowing event is set to take her to Mercer Lake, N.J., where her rowing team from Florida, The Leathernecks, will be competing for an invitation to represent the United States in Ravena, Italy in August 2014 in the ninth Club Crew World Championships.
DRAGON BOAT RACING
Wolanske would like to see dragon Boat racing find its way to Chautauqua Lake, which she says is very similar to the locations at which she had competed.
"This reminds me of every venue I'm in," Wolanske said. "It's the perfect place - it's a flat lake. We have everything in place for it to succeed, and it's fairly easy to find second hand boats that could be purchased and rented out. What would be great about having it on Chautauqua Lake is that it would bring the community together. If we had a community team - if we wanted to have our own race here, where we could create a culture of competition, health and wellness, it could represent our area so well. It's a simple sport that is easy to get into, and offers a challenge that keeps people at it. dragon boating isn't exercise, it's fun. The community could decide how recreational or competitive they wanted it to be."
Wolanske said that corporations regularly sponsor dragon boat racing teams in other locations, and such an arrangement could be made in Chautauqua, as well.
"Companies like Great White North, Pan Am and High Five come in and supply the boats for competitions (in Florida)," Wolanske said. "I can see this in our community's future."