The Cedar River Gang wasn't expecting to win its first appearance in the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd pull it off," said Tim Nichols.
Nichols and his wife, Marilyn, are the team coaches.
The Iowa-based team came into the Gold Division final with the slowest time of all four teams, but came out on top with a time of 2:06.37.
"We were hoping for better than fourth," Nichols said. "It was anybody's race the whole way through." He added that when the boat crossed the finish line, the paddlers had no idea they'd won.
"It was tough," team captain John Gilliland said.
"It is more fun taking on superior opponents and pulling out a win," he said. "They were all superior to us today."
Gilliland's family ties in Bemidji brought the team here.
Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce President Lori Paris is Gilliland's cousin, and his second cousin is Jake McLellan, a paddler with the Water Soaked Nerds from Widseth Smith Nolting and Associates.
"He's been begging us to come out here," said Nichols, who is glad they did.
"It's just been great up here," Nichols said. "The people are great; the venue is great."
Competing next year is a "definite possibility," he said.
The team, which started in 1989, is based in four Iowa cities: Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, Dubuque and Independence.
It still has three original members, but none was able to make it to Bemidji because of business responsibilities, Nichols said.
Dragon Boat teams are required to have at least eight women. The Cedar River Gang was down one paddler with a total of 19, only five of which were men.
"It's awesome," paddler Diane Sebetka said.
"We're very excited," Mary Ann Klouda said. "We never dreamed we'd do it. We were fourth going into it."
Nichols took classes during the summer session at Bemidji State University many years ago, he said.
"I came up here and enjoyed the lake. I never thought I'd be racing on this lake."
Even after the team had been awarded the first-place trophy, the victory hadn't quite sunk in yet for Gilliland.
"I'm just kind of spellbound," he said. "We had no idea."
Second place went to another newcomer to the Bemidji festival, the River City Dragons from the Manitoba Paddling Club, in 2:07.14.
The Hydraheads from Headwaters Canoe and Kayak paddled to a festival-record time of 2:03.23 in the first heat and had a time of 2:05.7 in the second heat, but last year's champion settled for third in the final with a time of 2:08.59, followed by the Wooly Irishmen in fourth with 2:10.86.
The Irishmen, sponsored by Keg 'N' Cork, Bemidji Woolen Mills and McKinnon Company, have now placed first, second, third and fourth in their four years in the festival.
A good day
"It's gone very smooth despite an interesting weather day," festival Co-Chairman Gary Johnson said.
Although the torrential rain of the night before after the opening ceremonies did not have an encore appearance, Saturday was a back-and-forth day of sunshine, clouds, wind and rain, often going from warm to chilly within the span of a few minutes.
"Times are fast and people are having a great time. It's been a good day," Johnson said. "Teams are really improved this year. People are more experienced.
"We have great teams competing in all three finals," Johnson said before the title races, noting that the Gold Division final had two experienced local teams and two experienced newcomers.
The Rockin Rowers from Knife River Materials won the Silver Division with a time of 2:12.23, just edging Lincoln's Honor Rowl from Lincoln Elementary School, whose time was 2:13.36.
"We didn't know we won until we got off the boat," said Jere Kubuske, who ran into the lake to celebrate, joined by fellow Bemidji State University football coaches Bryan Stoffel and Adrian Dunn, along with Janel Samuelson.
The Bronze Division title went to Maximum ROWtation from TEAM Industries in Bagley with a time of 2:12.68.
The Asian Lion Dance team from Duluth performed in the closing ceremonies, both in front of the crowd and within it. The closing act featured a pair of lions, each animated by two people, dancing among the spectators, often slowing to let delighted children touch the lions' heads.