PHILADELPHIA — Seven years ago, when Soc Thach was just 15, he trudged through jungles in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, going along the long trail that would lead him to his new home in the United States. Now he and a group of other ethnic Cambodians living in and around Philadelphia spend some of what little leisure time they have on the Schuylkill River.
They are great fans and participants in dragon boat racing, an ancient mix of art, legend and athletics that spread from China to the rest of Asia more than 2,000 years ago. Thach and his fellow Khmers are part of an effort to spread the sport of dragon boat racing.
They are among the 2,500 paddlers who will be racing Thursday through Sunday in the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships, being held for the first time in the United States along Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. Organizers expect up to 100,000 spectators to be on the banks of the Schuylkill, the tree-lined river famous for the rowing paintings by native artist Thomas Eakins. For Thach and his boat mates, it is an honor and a mission to participate.
"We knew we had to participate, if only to spread the word, both of the sport and our people's plight," Thach said. "It is a wonderful, wonderful sport."
There is no denying that it is a picturesque one. Dragon boat racing is to normal rowing as, say, the Greek chorus is to the guy who gets to play Oedipus. It's fancier but a lot more anonymous, and while you might be able to make a tiny mistake, you are a cog in a great team that takes every member meshing to be effective. Organizers say there are now about 40 million dragon boat paddlers worldwide, the bulk of them in China.
Each team has 22 members: 20 rowers in 10 rows of two, with a steering person standing behind, gondolier-like, and a coxswain who beats on a drum to keep strokes even. In short bursts, the rowers can do 100 strokes a minute and travel at 20 mph. The eight-person shells you may see in traditional rowing races are 25 feet long and light enough for a couple of people to easily lift. A dragon boat runs at least 40 feet long and weighs 500 to 1,800 pounds. Races are either 250, 500 or 1,000 meters long on a straight course in a variety of age and gender classes.
But while the race, here like in most every other sport, may go to the strong and swift, dragon boating is a bit more than that. Each boat is appropriately decorated with a dragon head and tail and, often, flags that represent either the nation or, more likely, the inner-soul of the group of rowers. The flag and shirts for Thach's team, Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, for instance, have a map of the southern provinces of Vietnam, where the rowers are from. The Federation boat, made up of immigrants, is entered in the North American club races and does not represent either Vietnam or Cambodia officially, but the members hope this sporting venue will air their political message.
"We hope by focusing on racing that it brings our community together and we will then be able to tell the world about the plight of the Khmers in Vietnam, where they are oppressed for their ethnicity," Thach said.
Although most of the competitors from 20 nations around the world--including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as Germany, Switzerland and England--are here primarily to win races, others also have missions they hope dragon boating will help. Four boats, for example, are being paddled by breast cancer survivors and are in their own special race category. Carol Lee Lindner, who is not a breast cancer survivor herself, saw organizing the Philadelphia-area team as a personal public service goal.
"I had heard about dragon boat racing five or six years ago and thought it might be fun," said Lindner, 61. "We got together a bunch of women and just started doing it. We loved the teamwork aspect, and, frankly, with 20 in a boat, it is not as difficult as regular rowing."
But then she read an article by medical researchers in Canada who thought that rowing, particularly the repetitive upper-body motion, would help breast cancer survivors build up their muscles in that area. According to Lindner, this ran counter to most doctors' advice, which was that repetitive upper-body exercise would cause lymph damage in those who had had breast surgery.
"I put the word out this winter, and that word got around quickly. These are women who don't want to sit around in clinics complaining about their chemotherapy treatments," she said. "What they want is to ask, 'How is your paddle hitting the water?' or 'Is your inside hand over the gunnel?'
"Now we want to get inner-city kids to do it. I have a Down syndrome daughter and she can do it," she said. "Because there are so many people who have to work together, it is wonderful for that."