The World Book Mighty Dragons Race for Literacy

by Mike Noren

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On Saturday, July 13, a team of World Book staffers took part in the Chicago Dragon Boat Race for Literacy, a paddling contest and community festival at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago’s Chinatown. The event is a daylong tournament in which teams of 16-20 people race colorfully decorated dragon boats on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Proceeds from the event support literacy efforts and cultural and diversity programs.

Dragon boat racing has origins dating back thousands of years. The sport honors the ancient Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan, who lived from about 340 B.C. to 278 B.C. Qu Yuan was from the state of Chu, in central China, where he served as an adviser to the ruler. His support for certain government reforms led rival officials to plot against him, and he was sent into exile. He eventually drowned himself in the Miluo River to protest corruption in the government. According to legend, local boatsmen took to the water in an attempt to save him. The reenactment of this legend at Chinese festivals eventually became associated with the sport of dragon boating.

At the Chicago Dragon Boat Race, the course begins under the train bridge near Canal Street, and it runs north 750 feet into the waters directly in front of Ping Tom Park. On each team, 14-18 people do the paddling, one person beats the paddling pace on the boat’s drum, and a final person serves as flag-catcher—that is, the person who leans forward at the front of the boat and grabs the flag at the finish line. Once a boat is loaded up and takes off, it becomes a remarkable sight: a dragon’s head at the front, a dragon’s tail at the end, and row after row of paddlers packed tightly in between. All day long, crowds gathered along the shore to watch, cheer, and photograph the races. Music and dance performances added to the festivities.

World Book’s racing team, known as the World Book Mighty Dragons, took to the water for its time trial around 9 a.m. Our captain was Nicholas Kilzer, who in his days off the water serves as World Book’s editor of health and anthropology. Our drummer was cartographer John Rejba, and our flag-catcher was Tom Evans of the Art Department. Captain Nick had done everything he could to get the team organized and well prepared. He explains: “Since none of our team had ever even been on a dragon boat, I knew we would have to make up for our lack of experience in typical World Book fashion—that is, with research, planning, and enthusiasm.” He researched dragon boat techniques and distributed instructional videos to the team members. He also worked out a seating chart to maximize our paddling strength.

As we took our positions, Nick and HR head Bev Ecker were side by side at the front of the boat. As the first row of rowers, they would set the pace for all the pairs lined up behind them. In dragon boat racing, it is essential that the paddlers stay in sync.

Unfortunately, the Mighty Dragons found out early on that it’s very difficult for 18- paddlers- all dragon boat first-timers—to remain in sync while also paddling their fastest. The early moments of the race saw water splashing into the boat, paddles knocking together, and a lot of herky-jerky movement. But during the middle of the course, the group suddenly clicked into synch. We hit a stretch where our timing came together, and we could feel the ride get smoother and the boat move faster. Tom grabbed the flag at the finish line for a time of 1 minute 28.53 seconds, which ranked toward the middle of the pack. But that stretch during the middle of the race helped us figure things out: we knew the adjustments we needed to make for the second round.

Our next race would be a head-to-head battle with Team Pepsi in an elimination round—winner advances, loser goes home. The Mighty Dragons made use of the time between races to rework our strategy and even hold a practice run—all of us sitting in our assigned positions in an imaginary boat, rowing imaginary paddles, on a section of grass in a back corner of the park. Yelling out the count with every stroke, we practiced over and over until we got our timing down. Finally, we were ready.

The new and improved Mighty Dragons hit the water around 11:45 a.m. for the race with Pepsi. Right from the start, it was a smoother, faster ride. Our technique was cleaner, our timing crisper, our motions more machinelike. Alas, Pepsi too had improved, and they snatched their flag just before we could get ours. But our official time of 1 minute 25.31 seconds—more than 3 seconds better than our earlier time—was clear evidence of our improvement. Our research, practice, and mid-day adjustments were the key, according to Nick: “If we had not been so well prepared, we would not have finished as well as we did.”

Our congratulations go out to Pepsi, and to all the other teams that took part in this great event. At the end of the day, the team from Grainger came away with the gold, with a finals time of 1 minute 14.39 seconds. For the World Book Mighty Dragons, the Dragon Boat Race was a fun day in the sun, a good bit of exercise, and, most of all, a valuable learning experience. With another year of preparation, we’ll be for ready for 2014.

Here’s the World Book Team- The Mighty Dragons!

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Pictured:

Nicholas Kilzer; Bev Ecker; Yuhwen Chow; Sean Kelley; Erika Meller; Jason Moser; Monica Beckford; Jean-Edouard Armand; Jeremy Rowden; Tom Evans; John Rejba; Alex Teller; Daniel Steilen; Jason Jones; Nav Lekhi; Rachel Martin; Tina Trettin; Don Disante; Jessica Dargiel; and Mike Noren.

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