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ANOTHER YEAR OF THE DRAGON? : A Hodgepodge of Men and Women With Various Athletic Interests and Experience Soon Will Be Seeking a Repeat of the Big U.S. Dragon-Boat Racing Ambush of 1984

June 10, 1988|STEVE BEATTY

SAN DIEGO — It caused quite a stir when the innovative Australians took the America's Cup from the United States for the first time in 132 years. But Americans are not the only boat racers to have suffered such embarrassment.

Take Singapore. A year after the winged keel debate ended in 1983, Singapore lost the championship trophy of the event it sponsors yearly in its national sport, dragon boat racing.

What was worse, for the first time in 2,000 years, the winning team wasn't from the Orient. In front of about 15,000 people, all comers lost to a team from Occidental centerpiece San Diego.

Think about it. The Yugoslavs beating the Lakers or Pistons (take your pick); the Nicaraguans winning the World Series.

The team of 24 Americans found new, faster ways of rowing the 1,100-pound boat with a multicolored dragon head sticking out from the bow and a long tail coming out the stern. They set a course record that still stands.

Even more embarrassing for Singapore was the fact that the Americans were coached by two people who had never heard of dragon boats before 1983, and that the American team included five women.

The Oriental teams consisted only of men who had been picked from hundreds of clubs. Most were subsidized by their governments.

"They didn't like it too much when we won," said Coach Egon Horcajo, who with Rena, his wife and co-coach, will take the San Diego team back to the Orient for the first time next week. "We stood in front of like 40 photographers when we won. That race is like their Super Bowl."

Eleven people who were on the team in 1984 will be going again on Monday. The team will race in Singapore on June 19; in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), China, on June 22; in Fuzhou, China, on June 24, and in the Hong Kong championships--the granddaddy of them all--on June 26.

USA Today reported that the National Football League will send two teams of just 11 to compete against the teams of 22 in that race. Other U.S. teams may also compete.

The races in Singapore are held yearly, but the San Diego team could not afford to go back before now. An anonymous donation will cover most of the estimated $75,000 in costs.

A group of lifeguards, lifeguards-turned-firefighters, a nurse, triathletes, swimmers and marathon runners, a few of whom had some paddling experience before being selected to the team on Feb. 1, will challenge teams that have rowed dragon boats all their lives.

"When we selected the team, we looked for people who had been on a team before," Rena Horcajo said. "We wanted them to know what it was like to compete. You can't teach that. These people have all been very successful in whatever they have done.

"We needed people who are in good condition, because the pace gets pretty fast (88 strokes per minute) sometimes. We wanted strong, lean people. That's why swimmers make excellent dragon boat racers."

The coaches were against bulk because the boats already ride low in the water. Heavy people would only make that worse.

"The idea is to keep the water out of the boat," said Caroline Krattli, the boat's drummer. She beats out the pace on a big drum, as a coxswain would call it out in crew. "Plus the boats are designed for Asians. Big people don't fit. You're sitting too close together."

Wedged into the 38-foot 10-inch boat are 22 rowers, 11 on a side. They paddle as if they were in a huge canoe. Balance and timing are the keys.

"We have to get everybody doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time," Egon Horcajo said. "With a group this size, that's difficult. And you have to contend with the weight. You want your strongest people up front, but they tend to be bigger and heavier. That makes the boat act like a plow."

Krattli sits on the bow, facing the rowers, while drumming. Rena Horcajo, who is about 5-feet 2-inches and weighs 115 pounds, stands in the stern. She barks out orders and steers with a long paddle that hangs off the side.

"The boat has no glide," she said. "It maneuvers like a log."

Rena and Egon Horcajo had no idea how the boats maneuvered when they were chosen as coaches in 1983. The boats had just been donated to San Diego by the Republic of Singapore. The Horcajos were asked to coach because they coached and rowed for the Hano-Hano outrigger club, which worked out and raced on Mission Bay.

Outriggers, dragon boats, what's the difference?

About 18 people on board. Only six row an outrigger.

Manned with only a videotape of the 1983 race in Singapore, the Horcajos began to assemble a team. It defeated Singapore on Mission Bay in a challenge race after only a few months of practice.

"They thought we had some kind of home-turf advantage, so they were eager to get us over there to race them again," Egon Horcajo said.

Once in Singapore, the San Diego racers had to cope with people telling them they couldn't possibly win.

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