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John Hageman column: A little wet and very sore

MONTE DRAPER \ BEMIDJI PIONEER The Pioneer's John Hageman (inside center) digs as the Lakeland "Love Boat" team nears the finish line in the team's first race.1 / 2
MONTE DRAPER \ BEMIDJI PIONEER The Pioneer's John Hageman (center) powers up at the start of his team's first race.2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- My first experience in a dragon boat was a humbling one.

I came into this past week thinking that the countless times paddling a canoe growing up in the Minnesota wilderness would be enough to jump in a boat and get the hang of it right away. That, and even if I'm not good, there are still more than a dozen other people in the boat to make up for me.

No sweat.

I received the email from my boss, Matt Cory, on July 24, letting Justin Glawe and I know that we shouldn't plan anything for Aug. 3. "I will be needing you both to cover the Dragon Boat event, one main story and one column, whomever wants to do the column."

I figured what better and more interesting way to write a column than to get in the boat and do the race yourself?

Unfortunately, The Pioneer didn't have a team this year, so I enlisted photographer Monte Draper to find me a spot. He let me know I'd be shipping off on the Loveboat, Lakeland Public Television's team. Practice was the next day.

Sounds easy enough. I'd compete in a couple of races, write a column, and relax with a couple of beers at the end of the night. After all, a dragon boat is nothing more than an oversized canoe, right?

I sent another email to Justin and Matt with a modest prediction: "So I'll be on a Dragon Boat team and write the column about that experience. I'm imagining the headline will be about how my massive upper-body strength pushed our team to the finals."

Justin's response can't be published in the pages of this newspaper.

Wednesday night's practice came around, where I was planted on the right side of the boat, second row from the front. I quickly found the technique is much different than leisurely paddling my dad's canoe. It required bending my upper body forward, reaching as far as I could forward, and keeping pace with my fellow paddlers, especially the two sitting right in front of me.

In the first couple runs I knocked my fellow rowers' paddles, and probably splashed Lakeland general manager Bill Sanford more than a few times (Sorry, Bill.) My arms started to ache, but I was getting the hang of it. (I'm almost sure I was doing it wrong.)

We were then told we were going to try going at "race speed."

"That wasn't race speed?" I asked, only half-kidding.

We practiced for another 20 minutes, even taking out paddles out of the water and bending forward in unison to get the technique down.

Flash forward to the next morning. I could barely bend to sit up and turn my alarm off. Everything north of my waist was stiff.

I dragged my limbs through the next two days at work until race day arrived. We slowly paddled out to the starting line Saturday morning, where I was completely unprepared for the horn to sound and missed a couple of strokes. But despite that hiccup we seemed to be out in front of the three other media cup teams.

It didn't end that way.

We finished fourth out of four, but only a couple seconds out of the lead.

Redemption came, however, in the choppy waters of the 3 p.m. race. There seemed to be no beating the Pine Tree Paddlers, but our mission was clear: not coming in last.

And just by the nose of the dragon on the front of the boat, we did just that.

Dragon boat races may be one of the purest examples of a team sport. It exemplifies how important each paddler is to the success of the team. Should one lose pace, the next few may follow suit, knock each other's paddles and quickly fall behind.

But for me, the experience will also mean I'll never look at a canoe the same way. Next time, I'll be tempted to race it across the lake.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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