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Pioneer Editorial: The most important race of the day

It was a beautiful morning on Lake Bemidji. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t hot. You could feel the breeze in the air, but the water was still.

A perfect day for dragon boat racing, in other words.

And that’s just what we had Saturday for the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival. There was a buzz around the waterfront and Team Village area as the early heats were run; that’s when all the hardware for the Bankers Cup, Education Cup and the Media Cup (congratulations to Minnesota Public Radio, by the way) is won.

But the buzz soon became silence as an anxious scene unfolded near the race-central tent. A paddler suffered some type of cardiac event as his dragon boat neared the finish line. Teammates and first responders were able to get the man to shore, just south of the main tent, where they and paramedics attended to him. As the crowd looked on, many were ushered back to make room as more emergency personnel arrived. Emergency medical technicians and personnel formed a circle around the man as they worked; murmurings moved through the crowd wondering what was going on. Soon, the ambulance’s siren cut through the quiet; more paramedics rushed down to the waterfront scene.

If you’ve ever witnessed such a scene, you know how it feels as seconds seem like minutes and minutes like hours. In reality, it was only those minutes before PA announcer Brian Bissonette’s voice could be heard, saying the man was breathing and conscious. A long round of applause went up as the man was taken by stretcher up the banks and into the ambulance.

Racing soon resumed, and while the rest of the day went off without a hitch, thoughts about what had transpired were never far off. Some thoughts were off-the-cuff; others possibly offering some concrete advice for organizers: “Should an ambulance be right there on the edge of the water? Should we have a permanent medical tent? Should there be more screening of participants?”

Afterward, Bissonette praised the response by volunteer staff and EMTs on site.

“That’s why we have them here — just in case. They were called upon and, boy, did they come through,” he told the Pioneer’s Malachi Petersen. “Their response time was incredible so we’re blessed and very thankful.”

Bissonette said Saturday’s incident was the first of its kind in the nine years of the festival. That’s noteworthy for an athletic endeavor; consider all those races (about 35 each year) and paddlers in nine years.

So, with the law of averages, Saturday’s incident was bound to happen.

But what’s never supposed to be average is the response of emergency medical personnel. From what we saw Saturday, it wasn’t.