“This is why we do this.”
The man next to me was rocking from heel to toe in excitement. His left hand was holding a wooden oar. His right hand was tightening the strap on his life jacket.
“This is what we’ve been working toward.”
We were waiting on a dock in Madison, Wisconsin – two lines of 10 people – ready to get into a 40-foot long boat. At the bow of the boat was a large drum and a chair where a woman would sit, facing us and beating out the rhythm we were supposed to match.
The humidity and heat of the day was softening our skin with sweat.
Someone started shouting bench numbers and, two by two, we took our seats in the dragon boat and paddled toward the starting line of our first race of the year.
Until I moved to Iowa, I had never heard of dragon boat racing, but this place – with so much culture built up around the river – has already introduced me to so many new ways of interacting with the water that surrounds us.
The race lasted only 90 seconds. I did what I was taught at practice. I focused on the movement of oar several benches ahead and moved exactly in time with that person. I held my arms the way I’d been taught and loosened my wrists to let the paddle glide just above the water without resistance before pushing it back down as deep as I could reach and pulling as hard as my body would allow. Again and again, exactly in time with 19 other people. For 90 seconds, the entire world disappeared – just the movement of the shoulder ahead of me, the sound of the drum, the wet of water rushing by and soaking my arms and the leg that I had pressed against the gunnel.
Someone asked me once how I define happiness. To me, happiness is in the moments when the past and the future disappear and there is just the present. If that feeling comes with a rush of adrenaline, all the better.
The path to those 90 seconds began in late December. I was new enough to town that I didn’t have a couch yet and my apartment still smelled like cardboard and packing tape glue. I read in the Quad-City Times that a group of kayakers meet each New Year’s Day for a “first in” paddle on the Mississippi. “Those are my kind of people,” I thought.
I was right. They told me about the dragon boat racing scene in the Midwest – Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota – that extends to competitions across the country and then the world. The next world competition is in China and Hungary in 2018.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a team in Davenport. The Quad-Cities is home to world-class rowing teams. We live in close proximity to 13 rivers perfect for paddling, but the expense and coordination involved in getting two dozen people in a boat together hasn’t happened here. Yet.
Instead, a friend and I drive to Cedar Rapids every Sunday to practice. We travel through that city’s neighborhoods that are in some ways still reshaping themselves all these years later after the 2008 flood. We meet teammates on a dock at a bend in the Cedar River and spend the next couple hours building our core muscles and focusing our minds to be synched to each other’s movements so we can be perfectly present during those 90 seconds on the water.