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Feeling the fire with the Baltimore Dragon Boat Club

The club is celebrating its 10 year anniversary by hosting its annual challenge on June 23. (Anna Muckerman / Baltimore Sun)

I will forever associate the word “Hit!” with a splash of tepid bay water, the smell of the Domino Sugars factory and a strong, tearing pain in my obliques.

In front of me, an octogenarian dipped her paddle into the water with the ease of an Olympian. Behind me, a woman stood yelling, “Give me 50 percent! Now 70! Look forward.”

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By the time I was supposed to be rowing at 80 percent, every ounce of my body strength was exhausted, and it seems unlikely to return until late this year.

If you’ve seen the brightly colored paddle boats with plastic dragon necks afloat in the Inner Harbor, I assure you that this was not the type of dragon boat racing I participated in Wednesday night. As we passed some of those idyllic carriages, I mouthed the word “help.”

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Dragon boat racing is a sport that originated 2,500 years ago in ancient China as a competition among local fishermen. Today, doctors, lawyers, engineers (and maybe some fishermen) make up the millions of enthusiasts who compete around the globe. (There are 50 million participants in China alone.)

The narrow, 41-foot-long boats often hold 20 rowers plus a drummer at the front who beats a drum to keep the rowers’ rhythm. Another member stands in the rear and steers with a long paddle. Each boat costs about $13,000 and is dressed with a colorful dragon head and tail for race day.

As I watched 20 rowers move together, gliding the boat in the reflection of downtown at dusk, it was clear why the sport is exhausting, beautiful and possibly addicting.

The Baltimore Dragon Boat Club began in 2008 after several members participated in the Catholic Charities dragon boat fundraiser held every two years.

“A lot of us said, ‘We love doing this. We don’t want to wait every two years to do this,’ ” said Susan Troupe, 63, of Towson, one of the founding members.

So the group sought help from other area clubs, including the D.C. Dragons, who lent BDBC boats until they could buy their own in 2011.

And now, on the 10-year anniversary of the club’s inauguration, the Baltimore team is preparing to host their annual challenge: 19 teams will compete on June 23 in the BDBC’s home water. Several teams will come from the surrounding states and represent organizations, corporations and cities.

“It started as something fun, partly to promote the club in Baltimore,” said Essex resident Ada Ma, 41, a founding member who heads up the annual event.

In order to host the festival, much of the 81-person club will be on land assisting visiting teams and overseeing the race. The club won’t compete in this challenge, but sees it as a way to share Baltimore with the dragon boat community and the dragon boat community with Baltimore, Ma said.

If BDBC were to compete, however, the other teams might have something to worry about: Three Baltimore racers have gone on to the national team.

“I loved it right away,” said Mark Yaco, 43, who lives in Towson. “It was life-changing for me.”

A fleet of 12 solar-powered pirate ships will join the paddle boats and dragon boats at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Yaco said he never had a sport until he discovered dragon boat racing in 2011. Now he practices for two hours before work and two hours afterward.

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“It’s a great sport because you have to be in sync with your teammates,” he said. “It taught me discipline, teamwork, strength — it’s a complete package.”

After a three-month tryout process, Yaco represented Team USA in last year’s World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in China — just months after receiving his American citizenship.

He also praises the sport for being low-impact, which allows people of different ages to compete.

Take Joan Chevalier, 62, for example. The Boston native also competed in China as part of a senior team.

“It’s kind of cool at the age of 60 to be on the national team of anything,” said the Annapolis resident.

The U.S., Australia and Canada all fielded multiple senior teams. Chevalier came home with four silver and two bronze medals.

“It’s practically the national sport there,” she said of the 13th annual competition. “There was live TV coverage and an Olympic-type celebration.”

Club members regularly participate in local competitions, including one earlier this month in Philadelphia.

To prepare for upcoming races, the club holds intense practices twice a week. I attended one of three weekly open practices that teaches basics to newbies.

Wednesday’s BDBC practice group was an impressive mix of older women, teens and middle-aged men — all of whom outpaced me.

With coaching, I learned how to throw my body into each stroke, pulling the water back when the “encourager” yelled “Hit!” I learned that you do not talk on the boat and that the sensation of hitting the paddle in front of you is not dissimilar to bumping teeth while kissing.

But despite my awkwardness, group members congratulated my effort as I clambered onto the dock.

It’s a sentiment Maureen Abenoja, whose paddle I bumped, expressed simply.

“It’s the people,” the 38-year-old Towson resident told me after practice.

Many members echoed the thought.

“I really like the exercise and the camaraderie,” said Joanne Barnes, 68. “If something happened to me and I couldn’t paddle, I would really miss it.”

Barnes, who lives in Arnold, started the sport for a popular reason among women. The muscles used while dragon boating are thought to help recovery from breast cancer. Barnes is a two-time survivor.

“It really helps with stretching the arm post-mastectomy,” said Barnes, who joined an all-survivor team in Annapolis before switching to the Baltimore group because of its spirit of inclusion.

Wednesdays are social night — for conversation and beer-drinking, once the boats are safely docked outside the Under Armour headquarters.

“It’s also a social affair,” Troupe said. “We do activities like paddleboarding, water-skiing, movies.”

As sweaty racers held perspiring brews, my initial horror in the face of moderate exercise started to fade.

“The reason I think we come back and do it is because we see people that didn’t think they could do it get on the boat and do it and surprise themselves,” said Savage resident Beatriz Caceres-Gentile, 46, the steerer encouraging rowers from the helm.

My legs felt like jelly as I walked back to my car. I couldn’t help but think she was talking about me.

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