Caught Up in the Spirit of the Dragon Boat Festival
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Caught Up in the Spirit of the Dragon Boat Festival

Huge crowds were lined up to make the ferry crossing to the Toronto Islands this Sunday to catch the second and final day of the 23rd Annual Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival.
“Normally, we get between 80,000 and 100,000 people out for the races, but I think we’ve passed that target this year,” David Wong says cheerfully. We’re meeting with the festival’s chair for a few minutes of pause between races, tucked behind the busy command tent, where near continuous award ceremonies and celebrations have been happening all day.

He mentions new initiatives, like the Summertime Art Studio, exhibiting work from local artists and craftmakers, and the Pan-Am Village, a taste of what’s to come at the 2015 event happening in Toronto (the focus on the stage is on Latin-American and Caribbean cultures). But the big draw is still the races—and for spectators, that goes for all levels of competition. “We’ve had the Spirit Challenge races, specially designed for the developmentally handicapped, for a few years now, and everyone wins—everybody loves that race,” says Wong.
Watching the competition from the media boat on the water, we certainly concur; it’s one of the most exciting events, as several of the boats’ drummers, who usually lean on the drums to bellow encouragement at paddlers, actually use the instruments to set the pace.
In the Spirit Challenge heat we watch, the glory goes to the teal-shirted Komodos, racing on behalf of Toronto Community Living. Our media boat coxswain, Geoff Johnston, points out their sweep (or steersman) to us during the race: “That’s Kevin Kwok—his family has a paddle in every room of their house.”
We catch up with Kwok after the race and before the jubilant award ceremony. An elite level paddler, he’s volunteered to sweep a Spirit Challenge boat every year since the competition started. “They come out and are challenged in a way they may not have been before, working together as a team, and have a lot of fun—it’s the best thing about summer, getting out on the water,” grins Kwok, whose massive arms belie a laid-back demeanour. “You can be any size, shape, age, doesn’t matter—paddling can be for everyone, and I love helping people enjoy the sport.”
Kwok will be racing later in the afternoon in the premier mixed category, but for him and many of the serious paddlers at the weekend’s races, it’s a warm-up for international competition later in the summer. “I’m on the national team, and we’ll be heading to the World Championships in Tampa Bay in August.”
Sandy Fields, team captain of the Great White North Premier Women crew (who won the Sports Women division), began her involvement with dragon boat racing 13 years ago at the festival. “I was working at CIBC and didn’t even know what dragon boating was.” She was asked to compete in the Bankers’ Cup race, and fell in love with the sport, eventually becoming a member of the national women’s team. Like Kwok, she sees the event as a great demonstration of the sport, and a warm-up for crews competing at a high level. “Next weekend is the big one—the Women’s Nationals, in Welland. They’re the qualifiers to go to Hong Kong for the World’s.”
For Wong and the rest of the festival’s organizers, the weekend has been a huge success, and he’s quick to credit no small part to the many hand-working volunteers. “I especially want to thank them—without their help, this wouldn’t be such a successful event.” He and the rest of the festival team will take July off, and in August they’ll begin preparations for next year’s races. We’ll know to line up much earlier for the ferries in 2012.