I stumbled upon the sport of dragon boating in the summer of 2013. Just a few months prior to that Tuesday evening in June, I’d packed most of the belongings of my adult life into a few suitcases and upheaved my life from its comfortable, familiar pattern in Kansas City, Missouri, and settled into a tiny New York apartment in Harlem.
Since moving to the city, I’d really only been focusing on surviving balancing a full time job and a full course load for grad school. So, when a friend asked if I wanted to see what the sport was about and visit a practice with her that following Tuesday, I readily agreed, welcoming any activity that didn’t involve sitting in front of a computer for hours. Little did I know that one practice was all it was going to take to get me addicted and change my life for the better.
When the evening arrived, it turns out the friend who invited me wasn’t able to make it, so I went to visit the practice by myself. After dragging my Midwestern self out of the boat for the first time, soaked with the infamous Queens marina water, and my muscles more sore than they’d ever been in my life, I knew that I found something I was going to keep. The following week, I became a part of the DCH Racing Group. “Summer” was soon switched out for “dragon boat season,” weekends became a whirlwind of aching muscles and sunburnt shoulders (until I started remembering sunscreen), and I like to imagine that I developed baby-abs just from the laughs I had with the team. My phone calls home became less melancholy, and more centered around stories from the boats or the dock.
What I’d found on that boat wasn’t just a group of (super ripped) athletes who were scary-competitive, but a family more tightly knit than I’d ever experienced. On the days that there wasn’t a scheduled practice, there was a steady stream of Facebook messages, posts, texts, and Snapchats about working harder, training better, focusing more, and enjoying every minute of the sweat and strain of training. For the first time in my life, I voluntarily ran regularly, ate healthier, and pushed myself further than I’d ever been before. I even cut my coffee intake in half (and for a former barista with 8 years of coffee shops under her belt, that’s saying a lot.) Without the team that I was now a part of, none of that would have happened. The amount of encouragement and care I found on the dock day after day was overwhelming. I’d found the missing piece in my new life in New York, and my newfound team was quickly helping me to see NYC as my home.
When my first season came to a close, I honestly had no clue what was in store during the off-season. I had no idea that I was in store for months of killer ERG practices, a semi-regular gym schedule (oh, and awesome holiday potlucks!!!), and a camaraderie that rivaled most families I knew. It was during the off-season that I realized I’d found a family, not just a team. I eagerly awaited the team-wide email that signaled the start to the next season, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling that washed over me when I stepped onto the dock for the first time in months. There, in the middle of Queens, surrounded by men and women that, in reality, I’d barely known for a year, I felt like I was coming home.
The second season flew by, and when the temperatures started dropping, my usual euphoria for football season and falling leaves was overshadowed by the knowledge that the season was coming to an end. Not to miss a beat, I eagerly awaited the next season, fitting in gym sessions in between classes and work schedules. However, I wasn’t prepared for that season to (seemingly) be my last. January 2015 saw me packing up my apartment and moving from Brooklyn back to the Midwest. It was bittersweet, because I knew that a new chapter was unfolding in my life, but it wasn’t including my team. I found myself answering the question, “What do you miss the most about New York?” with, “my team, dragon boat, my family.” More often than not, I found myself at a loss for words when I was asked what it was that made dragon boat such an important part of my life. I couldn’t take the hours and weekends spent in the gym or on the dock and condense them into a sentence or two. I couldn’t talk about the sunburns and blisters, the sweat and aching muscles, the laughter and love that were all part of my team, my sport, without taking all day.
When I made the decision to take the 7 train from Grand Central to Flushing on that Tuesday, I would have never guessed in my wildest dreams that the smiling strangers I met on the subway platform and at the marina would have impacted my life so immensely. Dragon boat was my saving grace when I was floundering in an alien city with nothing to guide me but my textbooks. It gave me a sport that is so much more than a hobby. It gave me a family, a support group, and a lifestyle.
DCH for life.