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August 29, 2002


Before moving to Pittsburgh from Portland, Ore., this summer, Amy Evans could hardly have been described as a fire-breathing promoter of dragon boating, a 2,000-year-old sport that originated in China.

She had paddled in Portland for just one season — four years ago — on the 40-foot-long, canoe-like boats, which feature fierce-looking dragon heads on their bows and scaly tails on their sterns. Inside each boat, 18-22 people sit two abreast, paddling in sync (ideally) as a tiller at the back of the boat steers and a drummer in the front beats the paddling rhythm — the "heartbeat of the dragon."

But then Evans heard that two Hong Kong-style dragon boats would be winging their way to Pittsburgh, courtesy of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Greater Pittsburgh Sister City Association, as part of the 20th anniversary of the relationship between Pittsburgh and Wuhan, China.

Evans, the new academic adviser for the undergraduate program in Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, thought: What a great way to meet people, get a cardiovascular workout and lure traditionally river-shy Pittsburghers out to play on the water.

Evans also saw an opportunity for Pitt staff, faculty and students to get in at the hatchling stage of dragon boating as a local sport. "At some universities and corporations it even promotes fun-loving interdepartmental competition. Certainly, great topics of water-cooler conversation," she wrote in an e-mail aimed at recruiting Pitt dragon boaters.

Evans began paddling with the Steel City Rowing Club, one of two homes for the city's dragon boats. (Steel City's black-and-gold boat is kept at the Sylvan Canoe Club in Verona, Pa. The other boat, painted red-and-gold, is housed at the Three Rivers Rowing Association on Washington's Landing, North Shore.) What Evans did not envision was getting drafted as a coach of the Steel City club's dragon boaters.

q "The stroke is in your back, not your arms," Evans explained to novices and reminded experienced paddlers, during a practice last week on the Allegheny River.

Evans stood up in the boat as she shouted instructions. The craft swayed only slightly. Dragon boats are very stable and will float even when swamped. (A new boat costs about $10,000, so they'd better not sink.) For added safety, paddlers must wear life jackets or at least take them along in the boat.

"Now, reach your paddle as far forward as you can toward the knees of the person in front of you, turning your body inward toward the middle of the boat," Evans urged. "Plunge your paddle into the water and turn your body so that your paddle is drawn back to your knee. That's where you should lift the paddle out of the water.

"Then snap your paddle forward again because you want that forward motion to be very fast. Then plunge the paddle down again into the water."

Plunge. Back. Up. Snap.

Plunge. Back. Up. Snap.

"That's your basic stroke," said Evans, who by default became a de facto coach for the Steel City Rowing Club because few other members had any experience with dragon boats. Witness the veteran Steel City rower who volunteered to handle the tiller — a 20-foot-long oar — during a recent practice and proceeded to steer the dragon boat in circles. When a barge loomed over the horizon and began chugging toward the dragon boat, another paddler took over the tiller.

In an e-mail to club members later that evening, the first tiller assumed a mock-defensive tone: "I don't believe that we were nearly so close to the barge as people claimed and I also happen to think that paddling in a circle promotes balance and is a valuable skill," she wrote. "For those of you who seek out the security and boredom of paddling in a straight line, I will not be steering tomorrow night."

q "In dragon boating, you have about 20 people on fixed seats, paddling with a short, quick stroke that should be completely in front of the paddler," noted Alek Gralewski, head coach of the University of Pittsburgh Rowing Club. "A dragon boat paddle is basically a canoe paddle. That's in contrast to a rowing shell, where you have four or eight people on sliding seats, taking long strokes with 12-foot oars."

One of the charms of dragon boat racing is that success depends more on teamwork than brute strength, Evans pointed out. That was demonstrated on July 14, when dragon boats raced locally for the first time during the city's Boaters Regatta.

During those races, a boat paddled by men finished ahead of a women's team by a mere 4 seconds, and the women's team beat an "open" boat, i.e., one with both male and female paddlers.

"The women went a lot faster than the open boat, which was telling," Evans recalled. "I think that was because we had confusing leadership in the open boat, where different people were trying to dictate how fast the paddling went and it got out of sync."

A well-synchronized, fast-paddling men's team usually will beat an equally efficient women's team simply because men tend to be stronger, said Evans. Except in elite racing, the paddlers' weight isn't much of a factor because the fiberglass-hulled dragon boats themselves are so heavy.

"But it's still true that dragon boating is a sport at which women can be competitive, which adds to the fun," Evans said.

That — together with the opportunity to get out on Pittsburgh's rivers — attracted Kit Ayars, senior assistant to Pitt Provost James Maher, to dragon boating. "Mainly, I'm doing it for the pleasure of being out on the water, but you do work up a sweat," said Ayars, who paddles with the Three Rivers Rowing Association.

"It's always seemed a shame to me that so few Pittsburghers use the city's rivers for recreation. Until this summer, I hadn't seen any way to do so myself. But when I heard about dragon boating, it seemed like something that I could work into my schedule."

Did Ayars have any previous experience rowing? Canoeing? Kayaking?

"Absolutely none," she said, with a laugh. "I'm totally non-athletic and have never done anything like this before in my life."

Kathleen Shade, another Pitt staff member who practices with the Three Rivers club, said, "When I heard that some people from the University were getting into dragon boating, I thought: What a fun thing to do. It's outside, it's great exercise, it's on the water and it's a great group activity."

Like their counterparts at the Steel City club, beginning paddlers at Three Rivers have been welcomed enthusiastically, said Shade, who is director of organizational development in Pitt's Office of Human Resources.

"My experience has been that even the club's very seasoned people are really supportive of new people, really friendly and willing to teach you how to paddle," she said.

So far, recruiting for dragon boaters at Pitt has been "very slow," Evans allowed. "I'm only aware of several other staff members and a faculty member or two, although there may be more," she said.

There's still time for new paddlers to get into the sport and compete in the city's second — and main — dragon boating event this year: a series of races during the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival, scheduled for Sept. 21, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., at North Shore Riverfront Park. The festival, marking the 20th anniversary of the Pittsburgh-Wuhan Sister City association, will celebrate Chinese food and culture.

For more information, call the Steel City Rowing Club (412/828-5565) or the Three Rivers Rowing Association (412/231-8772). Or, visit their Web sites at: and

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 1

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