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Originally published May 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 31, 2007 at 3:22 AM

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Colorful dragon boats take to the river during Portland's Rose Festival

Dragon-boat racer Carolyn Stewart grabs me by the arm and yanks me over to a circle of her aquatic comrades, who are standing on the bank...

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PORTLAND — Dragon-boat racer Carolyn Stewart grabs me by the arm and yanks me over to a circle of her aquatic comrades, who are standing on the bank of the Willamette River with life preservers on their backs and paddles held upright in their hands.

On cue, the women shout in unison: "Old Ladies Rock!"

After spending an hour and a half on the water observing them train, I am well prepared for the outburst.

They are Wasabi Power Surge, the nation's dragon-boat champions for women age 40 and up. The oldest among them is a spry 76.

Out on the water, paddlers in two boats had grunted and strained, propelling the 400-pound fiberglass crafts swiftly over the water. Their concentration was intense — focused on synchronizing strokes, paddle technique and body position, and on the orders being barked by coach Connie Flesuras.

"Chins up! Good form, ladies!" she yelled from her position on the bow.

If you go


Rose Festival races

For the 18th year, Portland's Rose Festival hosts the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association Dragon Boat Races. This year's races are June 9-10. Almost 100 teams compete (including local, national and international teams) with heats of four teams competing every nine minutes. The races are held on the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge in boats provided through the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association.

More information

Portland Rose Festival: www.rosefestival.org

Wasabi Paddling Club: www.wasabiusa.org

Seattle-area clubs

In Seattle, Seattle Sake Dragon Boat Club practices on Lake Washington with moorage at Leschi. Membership is open to anyone 14 or older. The club, with more than 200 members of diverse ethnic backgrounds and ages, provides boats, life jackets and paddles; www.clubsake.com or 206-203-0113.

Tacoma Dragon Boat Association paddles in Tacoma and on Seattle's Lake Union. Newcomers are welcome to try any paddling session at no cost, with sessions from 3-4:30 p.m. Sundays especially set aside for first-time paddlers. In Seattle, boats depart from South Lake Union Park near the Kenmore Air dock, 950 Westlake Ave. N. More information: www.tacomadragonboat.org or 206-523-4518.

As they practiced quick sprints, the strokes of the two dozen paddlers were so in sync and powerful that our boat felt like it was beginning to lift off the river. "Easy, easy!" said the 54-year-old coach. She turned to me and said, "Easy is not their thing."

A Rose tradition

Dragon-boat racing, which began in China about 2,000 years ago, has spread around the world, including Seattle, Tacoma and other American cities coast to coast. And there may be no American city more zealous than Portland, which has more than 100 teams.

The high point of the year is June, when races are staged during the city's Rose Festival. They began in 1989 with help from China and Portland's Chinese sister city, Kaohsiung.

Thomas Crowder, who competes for a team called the Golden Dragons, is president of the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association and director of the Rose Festival races.

"My wife got me started [as a paddler] about 10 years ago," says the 66-year-old retired college administrator.

Asian dragon-boat traditions are honored during the Rose Festival. "We have a formal Buddhist ceremony. The Buddhists go down to the docks and bless the boats," he says.

Boats competing during the Rose Festival are Taiwanese-style, with large, brightly painted dragon's heads and tails, and weigh more than half a ton. Drummers sit in the bow, pounding out a beat that sets the paddlers' cadence. It's not enough to cross the finish line first: The drummer in the winning boat also has to lean out on the dragon's nose and pluck a flag from a buoy.

Strength and speed

Team Wasabi Power Surge races in Hong Kong-style boats, which are narrower and lighter than the Taiwanese-style boats. With these craft, used in national and international races, it's all about speed. A drummer and small, removable heads and tails are added to the boats for races.

The women of Wasabi Power Surge, who train year-round, have qualified to race in the world championships this September in Sydney, Australia.

"There are a lot of Type A women in this sport," says Stewart, who has been paddling for 11 years.

In Portland, dragon-boat racing has become popular among breast-cancer survivors, who find it a good way to rebuild strength. They include Stewart and Gwen Foley, the 76-year-old.

"There's a group of us that's been together for awhile. Our motto is, 'I believe in you, you believe in me,' " says Stewart.

That's the team spirit!

According to the International Dragon Boat Federation, there are about 50 million dragon-boat paddlers in China, more than 300,000 in Europe, about 90,000 in North America and thousands more in Australia and New Zealand. The federation was founded in 1991, after international races held in Hong Kong to promote the city in the 1970s created a huge following.

It's teamwork, not individual heroics, that wins dragon-boat races.

But there's also fun out on the river.

On this spring night, in the middle of training, Coach Connie has the two boats come to a stop. She announces it's Carol Shauger's birthday. She's 57. Time to sing "Happy Birthday." But this is the Wasabi Power Surge's version — with everyone singing totally off key, and at the top of their lungs. The noise echoes across the river, heading into downtown.

Pleased with her paddlers' horrible singing, Coach says it's time to resume training sprints: "OK, let's do it again."

Without missing a beat, the paddlers sing "Happy Birthday" all over again, again off-key.

"I should have expected that," says their coach.

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