Team Kaya's dragon boat sped quickly past others racing along the waters of Baltimore's harbor Saturday morning, leaving other teams to wonder if it had a secret weapon.
"It's that girl in the front. Look how small she is," said one man, wondering out loud if smaller team members mean a lighter, faster boat.
The 17 teams competing in Saturday's event hosted by The Baltimore Dragon Boat Club at Tide Point Marina had spent weeks training for the grueling races, in which they paddle at top speed for 500 meters — at least two minutes for most boats.
Now that race day was here, sizing up the competition was only natural.
Experienced dragon boat racers know it takes a lot more than size to win at the sport, which originated in ancient China. They've all seen boats of big muscle men lose to small, limber women. Or watched an athletic-looking paddler peter out in the middle of race.
Technique, endurance, stamina and synchronization are as important — if not more important — than size.
"In other sports one guy can come in and make a difference," said Ousa Tran, a director with the local boat club. "In dragon racing everybody counts. If one person loses it, everyone loses it."
Dragon boats are canoe-like, only much longer. The ends are in the shape of a dragon head or tail, and are painted vibrant colors. They seat 20 paddlers who move the boat briskly along the water. The quicker and more synchronized the rowing, the faster the boat.
In addition to the paddlers, a steersman sits in the stern. A drummer at the bow sets the pace; with each beat, paddlers dip their paddles into the water. The drummer yells words of encouragement, directing when to slow down or speed up.
Team Kaya traveled from Queens, N.Y., where members practice in the shadow of the Mets' baseball stadium, to compete Saturday. The team member who drew attention for her small size is 22-year-old May Paing, a drummer who is 4'7" and 78 pounds. She admits that when recruited for the team she was told her size would make her a perfect candidate. But she says she is no secret weapon.
Instead, it's all about training, practice and drive, she said. Teams such as Kaya, which members said means "can do" in the Filipino language of Tagalog, practice several times a week. They do endurance training to improve stamina and interval training to work on speed. They exercise on land too, running or biking. Team Kaya even has a doctor who travels with the team, stretching members before races and treating injuries.
"It's a lot of practice and dedication," Paing said.
Saturday's race included teams from companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and others made of breast cancer patients and survivors. There were also teams of youth paddlers.
Many paddlers were former college athletes looking to continue participating in team sports. Others got hooked after being introduced to the sport by friends.
Seventeen-year-old Branden Dolnick of West Chester, Pa., has tried other sports including basketball, football and soccer, but dragon boat racing is the one he liked the most. Dolnick, who competed with one of the youth teams in Baltimore, said he likes the competitiveness and intensity of training — as well as the post-race relaxation.
"There's nothing like being out there on the water after a tough race with the breeze blowing," he said. "It's very calming."
The Baltimore boat club, formed in 2008, hoped to raise several thousand dollars from Saturday's race to help with its operations.
The day ended with a 1,812-meter race in honor of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
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