Taming the DRAGON in Gresham
The most beautiful thing Angie Kautz saw while in Kunming, China? The traditional eye-dotting ceremony, which is often held before a dragon boat festival or race.
The ceremony is a way to "awaken the dragon" and get him into a good and friendly mood. Those conducting it color in the eye pupils of the dragon's head that adorns the front of the boats. It is considered bad luck to paddle or race in a dragon boat on which the ceremony isn't performed.
"It was breathtaking," Kautz said.
Kautz, the Gresham-Barlow School District's director of elementary teaching and learning, was in China to compete for Team USA in the International Dragon Boat Federation's 13th World Nations Championship.
The 44-year-old Southeast Portland resident paddled as part of the Women's Senior A-Division team comprising women from around the country who are older than 40. By the end of Worlds, her 22-woman team had earned four bronze medals.
"It was an amazing experience being able to compete for Team USA," Kautz said.
The term "dragon boat" should be a familiar one to anyone who celebrates the Portland Rose Festival every year. One of that weekend's more popular events is the Dragon Boat Festival, which has brought the Chinese boat-rowing tradition to the region for more than two decades. Held on the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge, the race features teams competing in striking wooden boats decorated and painted to look like fearsome dragons cutting through the water.
The type of dragon boat racing that Kautz does is more focused on the competition, eschewing the decorations for practicality and speed. The boats used in the races are constructed with carbon fiber to reduce the weight. The crew consists of 22 individuals — 20 paddlers in pairs facing the bow of the boat, a drummer, and a sweep who steers the vessel.
"The races I compete in are more of a sport than a festival — which is what most think of when they hear dragon boat," Kautz said.
Making the cut
A former runner, Kautz finally decided to try dragon boating four years ago at the behest of a friend and foot surgeries that made pounding across the pavement less appealing. Even though she had never done anything of the sort, she went in with an open mind. In her first time on the water, Kautz joked that didn't know which end of the paddle to use.
"Paddling is more technical than you would think," she said. "I was definitely not a quick study."
But she was hooked.
"It's active meditation," Kautz said. "You can't be thinking about other things, like your job or what you are going to make for dinner. You are completely focused on the rhythm of the boat."
She now trains four times a week with her club team Wasabi Paddling, one of the more competitive squads on the entire West Coast. Because of her success at the club level, Kautz — on a team celebrated for its high-level success and great coaching — decided to throw her hat into the mix for making Team USA.
The process sent Kautz to Florida for a camp that tested her abilities as a paddler. All who went had to submit individual time trials and speed tests to make sure they could hold their own.
"I decided to take the risk and try," Kautz said. "There are some pretty amazing athletes on the team, so I was fortunate to make it."
On the national team, Kautz was placed on bench 2, where she's responsible for setting the pace for the other paddlers. All the U.S. athletes were amateurs, so they paid their own way to the competition. For them, it's a passion.
"This sport draws fun and adventurous people," Kautz said.
While making the team requires individual talent, the trick is having everyone synchronized before the big race — a much more daunting task with the truncated schedule and the fact that most on the team had never met each other. They had a day and a half of practice in San Francisco, where they trained as a team before flying to China.
"We probably shouldn't have done as well as we did," Kautz said, referring to their lack of experience paddling together.
Kunming is the largest city in the Yunnan Province in Southwest China. The city, with a population of more than 6 million and altitude above 6,000 feet, is tucked away in a remote region. Kunming consists of an older historic section as well as modern commercial, residential and university districts.
The races were held in Dianchi Lake, nicknamed the 'Sparkling Pearl Embedded in a Highland,' which is surrounded by temples and limestone hills. Those competing in the races stayed at an athletic training center.
"It was fun being in China because the sport originated there, and it's a much bigger deal," Kautz said.
In what was her first time traveling to Asia, Kautz enjoyed seeing the sights during the little free time she had.
She was also impressed by all the attention China gives to dragon boating, with local TV stations dedicating hours of air time to the races. During the competition, Kautz said there were spectators stacked eight-deep along the course — a crowd much larger than she is used to.
As the host country, Kunming also put on spectacular opening and closing ceremonies, including the eye-dotting ceremony that so impressed Kautz. During the opening of Worlds, the more than 2,000 athletes competing marched during the Parade of Nations — similar to what occurs during the Olympic Games. Flags were held high, though all of the athletes wore the same matching red jackets, so it was hard to tell each person's country of origin.
"You go past all the politics and differences," Kautz said. "We were all united in our love of racing. Sports bring people together."
In women's dragon boating, both the U.S. and Australia are considered world leaders. The two countries often find themselves neck-in-neck near the front of any race, and this year's world championship was no different. Australia was the team that just edged out victories against Kautz's squad, sometimes by only a few tenths of a second.
But despite the fierce competition, Kautz traded her jersey with one of the paddlers for Australia, whose uniform was still damp from their close race. The trading of jerseys is a traditional part of Worlds, allowing for people to connect with their fellow athletes from around the world. In addition to the Aussie jersey, Kautz also left with jerseys from China and Thailand, and an Iranian wrist band.
While Kautz's local club is focused and competitive, there is a large local community of paddlers for people to explore. Some groups only practice once a week, using the gathering as an excuse to drink beer with their friends and get out on the water. Others serve as an in-between, offering a great opportunity for a workout and friendly competition.
"Everyone has to start somewhere," Kautz said. "Joining a club opens you to a whole new community."
There are youth paddlers and a whole division dedicated to athletes older than 60. On Club Wasabi, Kautz paddles alongside a 72-year-old woman.
"There is longevity in this sport, you can do it forever," she said.
The next Worlds will be held two years from now in Thailand. Though the process to make the team is tough, and there are no guarantees she will represent the U.S. again, Kautz plans on trying out. She will compete in Hungary next summer with her club, so she should be in top shape for another run at Worlds.
"I would like to do this again," she said.
Legend of the dragon
The main legend behind dragon boating involves a Chinese court official named Qu Yuan, who was the minister of the southern state of Chu, one of many warring governments at the time.
In the year 278 B.C., Yaun was sickened by the devastation of his state because of constant invasions and fighting. So, he waded into the Miluo river holding a huge rock to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the violence and corruption.
The common people, upon hearing of his plan, rushed out in their fishing boats to the middle of the river in order to save Yaun. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles to keep the fish and evil spirits away from his body. Later they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger.
They were too late to save the beloved Yaun. But late one night a few days later, his spirit appeared before his friends and told them the rice that was meant for him had been eaten by a huge river dragon. So in commemoration of Yaun, the people began to hold dragon boat races annually on the day of his death.