Athlete development is essential to sport
The idea of competitive sport holds certain core values: personal challenge, dedication, progress and accomplishment. Athlete development programs offer motivated individuals the freedom to pursue their passions to the fullest extent. Dragon boat, like any sport, benefits from the existence of such programs.
Dragon boat is the most accessible canoeing discipline. It turns formerly unsporting people into competitive athletes. It provides the already-athletic a challenge outside the norm. It serves as a gateway sport to lifelong athletic involvement. A successful dragon boat community is especially dependent on athlete development.
The Bay Area is among the world’s greatest sources of potential talent
I began paddling in Vancouver. I raced for my high school’s small dragon boat team, and I admired the size and depth of the high school programs in the Bay Area.
SF’s Lowell High School has a program roughly as large as all the Vancouver city high school crews, combined. Excluding flatwater canoeists, I have seen more promising young athletes come out of SF’s Galileo High School than any other school in North America.
For the visually inclined, below is a comparison of last year’s 12 best high school teams of the greater Vancouver and greater SF areas, respectively.
San Francisco high schools train vast numbers of novice paddlers to competitive levels. The Bay Area’s college programs do the same. These beginning athletes are the enthusiastic young talent which feeds the community.
And they’re not just numerous and enthusiastic: college-age paddlers in California are fit. Many of California U23 fitness test scores are competitive with Canada’s premier team.
California, the Bay Area in particular, should be proud to consistently produce an exceptional base of potential talent.
These experienced, strong and competitive young paddlers build a strong base for the sport in the Bay Area. I would argue that dragon boat’s strongest North American foundations are in California. So why are the most competitive college and adult dragon boat paddlers in Philadelphia, in New York, in Tampa, in Montreal, in Toronto and in Vancouver, but not in California?
Lack of resources currently impedes athlete development in California
The needs of developing athletes
I don’t mean that the quality of paddling ability in California is poor. But I argue that, beyond high school, developing athletes lack opportunities and resources.
College paddlers and developing adult paddlers lack a training environment which appropriate for their competitive needs.
The beginning paddler needs a network of experienced mentors and a competitive team environment. The recreational paddler needs a welcoming community. Here, the Bay Area excels. But in California, the motivated competitive dragon boat paddler does not have the freedom to pursue excellence in the sport.
We’re all familiar with other team sports: let’s use basketball as our example since it’s popular in California. Like dragon boat, basketball is a team sport. But I challenge you to find me a star professional player who does not practice their skills on their own.
Imagine a world in which basketball players could only train a few days per week and scrimmages were the only form of training. Imagine that no player had the freedom to do drills or even to practice their shot in their driveway. Imagine that they could never practice or be coached on their own skills.
Young players wouldn’t be able to improve. Today’s stars would never have been able to grow to professional levels. Even the casual amateur player would never be able to reach their current competitive level. At all levels of the sport, no motivated athlete would ever be able to improve their abilities for the benefit of their team. Without the freedom for individual training competitive success in—or even enjoyment of—the sport would be impossible.
But this is the current state of dragon boat in California. Paddlers can only train in the big boat with the whole team. The analogue of basketball drills and skill training is small boat work, paddle pool work and paddling ergometer work.
The motivated paddler can only improve their paddling abilities when their whole team is able to train. They can’t put in extra hours unless everyone is involved. And they can never really directly train their personal technique and fitness.
The costs of not filling these needs
In the Bay Area, I have seen countless strong paddlers leave the sport prematurely. The community loses their talent and their mentorship, and they lose a chance at what could have been a long rewarding career in the sport.
The work that our young paddlers do in the gym proves that they are willing to train hard. Programs like California U23 show that the community is willing to coach, support and mentor developing athletes. But without the freedom to train harder, the motivated athlete will continually experience failure which they do not deserve, or they will quit the sport.
In 2011, California college paddlers, mostly born of SF’s powerhouse high school programs met those who had floundered in Vancouver’s relatively weak high school scene. But the Vancouver-based cohort won by a large margin. If the two groups meet again in 2013, I guarantee a similar result.
I have trained with the paddlers on both boats. Those on the USA boat are as motivated, hard-working, fit, and full of potential as the Canadians. They are not inferior athletes: with the same paddlers, three years earlier in high school, the USA would have demolished the Canadian crew.
But the difference came of what happened in the years since. The difference is that the Canadian crew has had the resources and the opportunities to develop from their comparatively humble beginnings into world-class athletes. They had equipment, opportunities and support which have not been made available to young paddlers in California.
And this is a shame.
Community investment in resources for high performance training could transform the sport
Vancouver has FCRCC where budding athletes and national team members alike, in exchange for a reasonable user fee, share open access to small-boat training.
This is what freedom to pursue excellence in the sport looks like:
FCRCC is an excellent example of what the community can achieve with the right resources. It is why Vancouver is able to turn paddlers from some of North American’s weaker high school programs into the strongest college-age paddlers on the continent.
Every other city with a diverse, healthy and competitive dragon boat community has a similar facility.
Pemberton (Laoyam Eagles) has integrated high performance outrigger and flatwater canoe training programs. So does almost every single program in Europe. So does Toronto. Montreal has Canal Fitness, dragon boat ergometer and paddle pool facilities.
These allow athletes to train hard on their own paddling, and bring this benefit back their teams. These allow athletes freedom and control over their training. It allows them to explore the sport and have fun.
The San Francisco Bay Area has nothing.
The average Californian dragon boat paddler is not as rich as the average Canadian. But individual training is only within their reach if they have an outrigger canoe ($1200-4000+), flatwater canoe ($1200-4000+) or paddling erg ($2300). Of the hundreds of young dragon boat paddlers in the Bay Area almost none have access to these resources.
Unlike in every other “paddling city” in North America, there is no Bay Area facility which makes these resources available to the community’s motivated paddlers. And so it is simply impossible to train efficiently towards higher success or enjoyment in the sport.
Here’s my idea:
What if we could build a facility in the Bay Area where its many motivated paddlers could train?
Where our strong high school programs could actually grow into a thriving community of highly competitive adult athletes? Where our college-aged paddlers could turn their hard work into hard and effective work, and achieve the success they deserve? Where future leaders and mentors and coaches could be forged within the local dragonboat community, instead of depending on coaches from other countries and other canoeing disciplines to develop the sport? Where California could create the elite athletes to give the State the representation it deserves on the senior national team?
We don’t need an Olympic-quality paddle pool. We don’t need twenty outrigger canoes. Other cities’ resources are currently out of reach and we don’t need them.
But a small starting facility could completely change the sport.
How it might work:
Obtain four or five OC2s. OC2s are small and light enough to work on individual technique and provide feedback. Better for coaching and better stability than OC1s. Two seats for not much more than the price of an OC1.
Eight to ten seats is enough for the core of a team to train together in a competitive environment, while keeping costs manageable.
Where would be get them?
A) Donations and used boats. This is the cheaper option. There are potentially enough OC2s on the used market on the West Coast to build the program. This would be the far cheaper option. (~$6-12k?) If clubs or individuals were generous enough to donate their older boats, this would help greatly.
B) Matched sets of new boats in an inexpensive and durable fibreglass layup would be easier to maintain. Huki OC2s are locally built in Sacramento and would cost $14k for five.
Who would run the program?
It would probably be best for the program to run the program independently of other organizations streamline its administration.
There are issues with insurance, conflicts in priorities and autonomy if we were to partner directly with any existing paddling organization.
It could conceivably be run by a team of one or two younger paddlers, who would need to oversee management of the boats, insurance, etc. as well as maintain the boats in working order and do repairs if necessary. This would probably be a commitment of a couple hours per week, depending on use.
I know college paddlers who have expressed interest in volunteering in a management role to help the paddling community, but who don’t want to take on the larger responsibilities of a CDBA board position.
There could be a number of options, with their own benefits and drawbacks.
A) Lake Merritt. I have dealt with this City of Oakland-managed facility in the past, and they have a large dock space, lots of storage space and are themselves looking to expand as a centre for dragon boat training. This is a safe flatwater facility, which is close to public transportation and also offers enough water for serious training. The administration is very enthusiastic and helpful and would likely support a small boat training facility for dragon boat. However, being in the East Bay, it is not a particularly accessible site for many teams.
B) Lake Merced. This is the traditional centre for dragon boating in San Francisco, and where most teams already practice, which is a large advantage. However, it does not have shed or dock space, is a poor environment for boat maintenance, and is a smaller and busier site than Lake Merritt.
C) An existing outrigger club. Hui Wa’a and O Kalani both have some ties to the dragon boat community. These would have the storage facilities, dock space and maintenance knowledge to keep a fleet of small boats. However, the missions of these organizations are not necessarily aligned with providing a facility for high-performance training in dragon boat.
For my vision of this project, accessibility is the main objective.
Reasonable user fees would be necessary to maintain the facility. An initial facility would probably have to be restricted to a single site: either in SF, Oakland or the South Bay. This would mean that some sub-population of the Bay Area would not find the facility accessible, wherever we put it.
The point is not to cater only to the already highly competitive paddler. A lot of these paddlers have joined outrigger clubs and are willing to juggle fees and commitments to multiple organizations, or have made extremely large financial investments in the sport.
The point is to allow any motivated paddler at any current experience and commitment level to discover training at a high competitive level. Many of FCRCC’s top athletes did not discover their passion for the sport until after they had begun small-boat training at the club. The point of the facility is to remove the barrier that currently exists to higher level training.
How do we make this facility accessible enough that the motivated paddlers on college, adult competitive and even adult recreational teams would find it a reasonable option to supplement their training?
Allow paddlers to try it out before committing? What’s a reasonable user fee which would be low enough for most paddlers but high enough to maintain the facility? How do we make this facility as equally accessible to as many teams as possible?
This is the major barrier. Even a basic set of boats plus storage facility could easily cost $10-15k.
Grants, either from local government, or from a program like Chase Community giving would make this easy. A few years ago the City of Oakland spent roughly $12000 on brand new dragon boats, without actually having a firm market for them. Would they be interested in funding a facility which would actually be heavily used and also position them as an important training centre? Maybe. If we could obtain nonprofit organization status, we could probably raise enough support to secure a Chase grant which would easily cover the whole project.
Failing grants, donations could turn high performance paddling the bay area from a dream into a reality. If we could get either OC1s OR OC2, of any age or quality donated, this would bypass the issue of raising money.
Fundraising might be the best short-term option to start the project. If the college teams and competitive adult and high school teams which would benefit most directly from the project were to pool their resources, basic team fundraising could probably fundraise enough within a year to make a start on this project.
With basic donations and fundraising, even a basic pilot project with one or two boats could demonstrate the feasibility and benefit of a training facility.
How we might get started
I’m going to keep the discussion here for at least a few more days to help me nail down specific, reasonable plans.
I would love for as much input as possible before I start pitching this to key people in the community.
I think the next step goes in a few directions:
1) Figure out if the community is on board with this project, or feels they would benefit from it. Coaches: is this something that you think your team would benefit from? Paddlers: would you be interested in accessible small boat training? What else do you all feel needs to be considered?
2) Identify potential sites, sponsors and administrative partners. My best idea right now is Lake Merritt… is there a better one?
3) Get people high up interested: the CDBA, the PDBA, the Cities of Oakland and San Francisco, outrigger clubs who might be willing to help, etc.