By Nicholas Kilzer
On Saturday, June 28, a crew of World Book employees took to the Chicago River for a second time in the annual Dragon Boat Race for Literacy, sponsored by the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. The event is part of a daylong festival held in Chicago’s Chinatown at Ping Tom Memorial Park, with music and dance performances in addition to the races. In the dragon boat tournament, crews race colorfully decorated dragon boats, holding up to 20 people, on a 750-foot long stretch of the South Branch of the Chicago River. Proceeds from this year’s race will be used to support and promote local literacy, cultural, and diversity programs throughout the city.
Dragon boat racing has origins over two thousand years ago in China. The sport honors the ancient Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan, who lived from about 340 B.C. to 278 B.C. 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 fishermen 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.
World Book’s racing team, known as the World Book Mighty Dragons, participated in their first dragon boat racing competition at the same festival in 2013.That experience proved to be a hard lesson, as the Mighty Dragons were defeated in their two races and failed to advance. However, the team was heartened by their improved race times from the first heat to the second. With several veterans on the crew and a few enthusiastic rookies, the World Book Mighty Dragons were intent on improving their performance this year.
As captain of the Mighty Dragons, I had to figure out ways to improve on last year’s performance without the benefit of any organized training or actual practice on a dragon boat. I did some research on dragon boat crews while vacationing in Taipei, Taiwan, where the Dragon Boat Festival is a popular public holiday with races held over several days on the Tamsui River. I learned that seating our six heaviest and strongest paddlers in a group (called “the engine”) at the middle-rear of the dragon boat would provide ballast at the best position to maximize our paddling strength. Our lighter paddlers were placed at the bow, where lead paddler Bev Ecker set the pace, and the stern, where they would provide that last push towards the finish line. I also took note of our left-handed paddlers to place them on the port side, which would allow them a more natural paddling. Our sweep (the experienced helmsman who steers the boat, provided by the Chinatown Chamber) also provided helpful tips to improve our paddling.
In the first race, the Mighty Dragons were matched up against the consumer research and media ratings firm Nielsen. This first race was a seeding heat that would determine our opponent for the elimination heat to follow, so a good finishing time was important regardless of the outcome of the race itself. Some good-natured trash talk by the Nielsen group in their black dragon boat was met with steely stares of determination from the World Book paddlers. As the starting horn sounded, the Nielsen boat got off to a surprisingly quick start. But World Book drummer Erika Meller shouted at the Mighty Dragons to pick up the pace as she beat an increasingly fast beat at the bow. About half way down the race course, the Mighty Dragons pulled even and then ahead and never looked back. Flag-catcher Al Jackson grabbed the flag at the finish line and held it high to mark our victory in front of a cheering crowd of supporters from the World Book Home Office. The Mighty Dragons finished with a time of 1 minute 25.82 seconds –about ½ second faster than our best finish time the year before. Even better, we had won our first race, besting Nielsen by more than 3 seconds.
Our race time had us right in the middle of the standings among 30 teams, which meant we would be seeded against a team of nearly equal strength. Our next race would be against the Wheezin Dragons of Northrop Grumman in an elimination round where the winner advances and the loser goes home. During a break, as organizers lined up the second-round matches, the Mighty Dragons met briefly to plot our strategy. In dragon boat racing, it is essential that the paddlers stay in sync. While our paddling synchronization was good in our first race, we knew we needed to paddle faster, harder, and deeper to increase our speed.
Determined to show our confidence, the Mighty Dragons chanted our company name as we paddled to the starting line alongside our opponents. At the horn, the whole crew dug in deep with their paddles, and the Mighty Dragons were off to a fast start. Both crews paddled furiously, yelling the count to stay in sync while splashing wildly as the dragon boats raced neck and neck down the course. I looked up just as we approached the finish line only to see the Wheezin Dragons snatch their flag less than 2 seconds before us.
Our disappointment with the finish and our failure to advance was somewhat tempered when we checked the scoreboard to see our race time. At 1 minute 20.62 seconds, we had sliced more than 5 seconds off our fastest time! Such a time would have guaranteed advancement against a lesser opponent. Our congratulations go out to the Wheezin Dragons, and to all the other teams that took part in the competition. At the end of the day, the defending champions from Grainger came away with the first place medal, with an astonishing final race time of 1 minute 07.81 seconds. For the World Book Mighty Dragons, the Dragon Boat Race was another fun day in the sun, with some intense exercise and the thrill of our first victory. The teamwork and enthusiasm that the World Book Mighty Dragons brought to the competition will be felt in all aspects of our work at the Home Office as we set our sights on advancing next year!