Dragon boats with a cause

Festival on Lake Vancouver raises more than $13,000 for veterans program

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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As colorfully painted dragon boats assembled Sunday at the starting line on Vancouver Lake, one team knew the waters particularly well.

A horn blared and a frenzy of paddling began. A drummer on each boat pounded away, shouting commands at the paddlers. Spectators on the beach cheered as the boats glided forward.

Most participants were Portland-based teams accustomed to maneuvering on the Willamette River. Among them, though, was the fledgling Catch 22, the only dragon boating team from Vancouver. During its third race of the day, Catch 22 crossed the finish line last, but the group still had plenty to celebrate.

After practicing for months on Vancouver Lake, they were competing at their first event. They also were helping a good cause.

In its second year, the Paddle for Life festival raises money for a new program that encourages veterans with disabilities to participate in boating, kayaking and other water sports at Vancouver Lake, said Jeff Campbell, Paddle for Life’s race organizer.

Thousands raised

Twenty-four dragon boating teams participated in the benefit race, which ran Saturday and Sunday. In all, the event raised more than $13,000 for the veterans program. Last year, the group’s first dragon boating benefit race raised about $8,500.

The money goes toward buying water sports equipment, including equipment that’s adapted for disabilities, and toward making park facilities more accessible.

Campbell said he’s seen how water sports can change the life of veterans suffering from a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or other disability.

“He’s free, he’s gliding along and he can go as fast as he wants,” Campbell said of one veteran in the program. “It was just a freedom he could get out on the water.”

Building community

A veterans dragon boating team from Oregon was one of the 24 groups competing at Paddle for Life over the weekend. The team formed last year after meeting through various veterans organizations.

“One of the things that’s hard for us is to find something to do that gets that sense of camaraderie, that’s outdoors and that’s physically active,” the group’s coach, veteran Melissa Kilgore of Portland, said. “We just have a lot of fun.”

Her team’s name? The Pink Fluffy Dragon Bunnies.

“Paddling just gives you something to take your mind off of the traumas before,” said Bunnies member Kevin Wilson, a veteran from the Milwaukie, Ore., area. The sport also gives “everybody a community to grow with and share with,” he said.

‘I was hooked’

Vancouver’s Catch 22 started to form last summer. The group eventually grew to more than 20 members.

“I started asking everybody I met if they wanted to join a dragon boating team,” member Laura Harper of Vancouver said.

Harper’s persistence helped build the team.

“All these women kept showing up,” said Campbell, who’s also a coach for the team.

Camaraderie, competition and improved coordination were just a few reasons Catch 22 teammates said they enjoyed the sport.

It’s also great exercise, they said.

After the team’s third race Sunday, Catch 22 regrouped to talk about how they did. Harper said the group was starting to work together like a team should.

“Timing was spot on,” Campbell said, adding that paddling technique will improve with practice.

Janna Brown, another coach for the team, later told The Columbian she would like to see some veterans join the group. Catch 22 welcomes newcomers, men and women alike, during their practices at 8:45 a.m. Saturdays at Vancouver Lake Regional Park, 6801 N.W. Lower River Road.

Brown, a 61-year-old breast cancer survivor, started dragon boating about 12 years ago after a friend invited her to join a team of other cancer survivors. “I was hooked,” the Vancouver resident said.

Her team’s next goal is to compete in the Portland Dragon Boat Festival in September on the Willamette River.