Dragons blaze across the water

Paddlers on Vancouver Lake exult in the thrill of pulling together to race as a team, support sports for veterans

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

On the Web

Paddle for Life: paddleforlife.org

Disabled Veterans Water Sports Program: dvwsp.org

Double Fifth Dragon Boating: doublefifth.com

VANCOUVER LAKE -- Melissa Kilgore said she had a mere five days to put together her dragon boat team of veterans with disabilities to compete in Sunday's Paddle for Life competition.

It worked out.

"We took first and second of the novice teams, " she said.

The 11 members of Kilgore's Vets represent four branches of the Armed Services. Kilgore, 42, of Portland served in the Army from 2002 to 2006, including 14 months in Iraq. She suffered neck, back and foot injuries, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Proceeds from Sunday's 18-team event go to the Disabled Veterans Water Sports Program, which offers water sports on Vancouver Lake.

"What I love about (dragon boat racing) is the team camaraderie," Kilgore said. "You have to keep your mind in the game. It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of laughing and splashing."

La Center's Tony Davis, another of Kilgore's Vets, was a Navy helicopter rescue swimmer.

Tiffany Jones, 18, of Team Fusion walked ashore looking exhilarated. And drenched. "You didn't happen to bring extra pants, did you?" she asked her stepmom.

Of dragon boat racing, Jones, a Mt. Hood Community College student, said, "I've been doing it for four years. I like the adrenaline rush."

Competitors were greeted with off-and-on weather: Sunshine, then cooling and, at 12:30 p.m., a rain squall. Team members huddled under portable canopies.

Where the Fire Breathing Blowfish team gathered, Abby Rippy, 25, of Portland was jazzed.

"We won by two boat lengths," she proclaimed. "We will go until we get medals," which they did. Also, Rippy brought in nearly $600 in donations and the event raised more than $6,000 for the veterans' water sports program.

"It's such a good cause and I'm just blown away by support from teams," said event organizer Jeff Campbell.

The brightly painted dragon boats come in 10-person (30 feet) and 20-person (41 feet) sizes. The Fire Breathing Blowfish team has 29 members, Rippy said.

The Blowfish practice three nights a week on the Willamette River from April to October, Rippy said. And the friendships grow.

"I'm getting married next year and they (team members) have jacked up my guest list," she said, smiling.

There are plenty of meets this year and team Blowfish plans to race twice in Portland, including at the Rose Festival, and perhaps in Las Vegas.

Coach Marla Baker, 53, proclaimed the Blowfish "the funnest team on the water." She is the equipment and warehouse manager for Dragon Sports USA in Portland. She also does boat repairs at the business.

Event organizer Campbell, owner of Double Fifth Dragon Boating of Vancouver, will sell you a 20-seater for $10,000. A former world competitor in dragon boat racing, Campbell started his business in 2005. He manages dragon boat races and sells equipment to teams all over the world.

Campbell, also an international race official, has been instrumental in developing the races all over the U.S., including in Houston, Dallas, Seattle, and Oakland.

The sport is said to have started in 300 B.C. In 2013, Campbell said, "We anticipate about 100,000 people to participate on nearly 5,000 different teams throughout the country. Worldwide, over 50 million people will pick up a dragon boat paddle this year, mostly in Asia."

As the rain started to pelt participants, one competitor smiled and said, "It's a water sport."