VERMONT — Mary Ann Castimore of Waltham remembers the finish line in Hong Kong. In a stunning upset, the United States Dragon Boat team she was a part of flew over the finish line ahead of the Australians — the world champions and favorites for the race — in the next lane.
“Our boats drifted after we crossed the finish line and everybody stopped,” she said. “The whole Australian boat — all 22 heads just whipped and they stared at us like, ‘Who are they? What’s a Vermont?’”
Who it was was Dragonheart Vermont, a breast cancer survivor and support club that has made a name for itself as the team from a landlocked state that brings some serious competition to dragon boat races on the open water. Dragon boat races pit teams of around 20 racers in long, thin boats that paddle a straight course in competitions with other dragon boats. The Dragonheart Vermont club, which competed so successfully in the International Dragon Boat Federation’s Club Crew World Championships in Hong Kong in 2012, concluded the 2013 season with four national titles and earned the distinction to represent the United States next year in Ravenna, Italy, at the International Dragon Boat Federation Championship.
At the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew National Championships held Sept. 13-15 on Lake Mercer in West Windsor, N.J., Dragonheart Vermont took home four gold medals in races of 200, 500, 1,000 and 2,000 meters. Winning teams were the Dragonheart Vermont Sisters in the breast cancer survivor division; the Dragonheart Green Mountain Girls in the women’s senior B division; Dragonheart Quicksilver in the senior C mixed division and the Dragonheart Senior Warriors in the women’s senior C division.
Linda Dyer, founder of Dragonheart Vermont and spokesperson for the breast cancer survivor team Dragonheart Vermont Sisters, said the four victories were well earned.
“To take six teams was a little exciting,” she said. “We knew our Sisters team was strong and ready to compete, but each of our teams rose to the occasion and gave their very best effort.”
The club, now boasting 175 members on six teams competing in divisions at the recent championship, has been training and competing since 2004. Dyer came to Vermont with her husband, Vermont Technical College basketball coach John Dyer, with the goal of starting a dragon boat racing team for other breast cancer survivors.
The club’s beginnings, John Dyer said, were modest.
“We were hailing people on the side of the bike path, trying to get them to help paddle our boat across to where we wanted to store it,” he said, describing the club’s earliest days, when the Dyers went to Boston to borrow the club’s first boat for the summer in Burlington. “That first year we were hoping just have something to start.”
By the end of that summer, membership increased to 50 and the club raised money to purchase its own boats.
This is the first year the club has had enough interest to organize a premier women’s team. A premier men’s team will begin next year.
Eugenie Doyle of Monkton is a breast cancer survivor and a paddler on the Dragonheart Sisters team. She joined after participating on a community team at the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival, an annual fundraising and memorial race organized by the club. Doyle described her participation in the club and her work as a farmer, as “two different worlds.” The time when the teams practiced the most coincided directly with the growing season on the farm she and her husband operate in Monkton, Vermont.
“I’m a farmer,” she said. “So my involvement was pretty low-key. I couldn’t get away much.”
Doyle said she was able to make more of a commitment when the club held a fundraising event called “Dragonharvest.” Local food producers donated products to raise money for transportation to races.
“I felt like I could provide in both,” she said. “That was an occasion where I was able to combine those two worlds.”
She said she also received support from her family and the rest of the workers at the farm.
“Both my husband and my son have played competitive sports so my family felt like it was my turn. They made it very easy for me to participate in both,” Doyle said.
Steve Murphy serves on the board of directors for Dragonheart Vermont and also competes on the Quicksilver team. Murphy began competing in 2006 and said the teams have become more competitive every year.
“We’ve come a long way in our abilities,” he said. “The improvement is quite remarkable.”
At Lake Mercer, the Sisters team lost a race by a hair — 0.05 seconds. They then won the next two heats by two boat lengths.
John Dyer, who initially rowed and now coaches the Dragonheart Vermont teams, said it takes one to two years for members to go from casual participants to serious competitors.
“It usually takes a year or two before the bug bites,” he said. “At first we were just happy to be out in the boats celebrating life, but the ladies started coming forward and saying, ‘We want to start winning.’”
Mary Ann Castimore said that competitive spirit was surprising.
“I never thought I was a competitive person until I put myself in a dragon boat. When I’m in a boat, I’m competitive.”
Castimore first paddled on a community team during the first dragon boat festival in 2006. She joined Dragonheart Vermont the following week and attended “Newbie Camp” — a one-week intensive course to learn the fundamentals. Even though she was an experienced kayak and canoe paddler, she found the style and pace of the sport to be completely different.
“I was a slow learner,” she said. “They would say, ‘Mary Ann! Twist more! Straighten out your arms! Use your core!’ It was a very humbling experience.”
Now she paddles in the “engine room,” the middle of the 41-foot long fiberglass boat where bigger, more powerful members of the crew sit. As the boat races forward, the momentum drives the bow out of the water. The “engine room” is responsible for generating much of the power while stabilizing the boat.
After the September races, the boats have been pulled out and stored for the colder months.
“We’re kind of going through withdrawal now,” Castimore said.
Since then, Dragonheart Vermont team members will continue a regimen of cross training for seven months in the off-season combined with workouts on the water.
During the season, teams routinely paddle 10 to 12 kilometers every practice on Lake Champlain. Castimore said she exercises and attends fitness classes regularly to stay in top condition.
“You get in shape to dragon boat, you don’t dragon boat to get in shape,” she said. “Dragon boating is great exercise, but the stronger you are, the better you do.”
And the training and instruction has paid off. Now, John Dyer said, “They breathe fire when they get into that boat.”
In addition to competing at the international level, the Dragonheart Vermont Sisters will also compete at a breast cancer survivor race organized by the International Breast Cancer Paddler’s Commission in October 2014. Over 100 teams from around the world are scheduled to compete in Sarasota, Fla., but Dragonheart Vermont is the only club to send teams from the Green Mountain State.
Despite the thrill of competing (and in their case, winning), members insist the club remains focused on connecting with other cancer survivors and promoting the growth of the sport, which they point out is the second-most popular sport in the world after soccer.
“When we’re in the boat, our eyes are in the boat and we’re fierce competitors,” Castimore said. “But once we’re out of the boat, we’re going over and we’re talking to them. There’s that competitive edge on the water, but when we’re off the water we know we’re all basically in the same situation.”
Doyle said group provided a kind of support for survivors not found elsewhere.
“It’s been the only kind of support group I wanted to be involved in,” she said. “It’s very active, very focused on living every day, making the most of our health and being compassionate towards others who are literally in the same boat.”
Addison County members of Dragonheart include:
• - Mary Ann Castimore of Waltham
• - Carol Bowles of Ferrisburgh
• - David Bowles of Ferrisburgh
• - Ellen Postlewaite of Ferrisburgh
• - Jeanne Comouche of Ferrisburgh
• - Eugenie Doyle of Monton
• - Ruth Squire of Waltham
• - Barb DeWitt of Ferrisburgh
• - Mary Koen of Addison
• - Elaine Coon of Middlebury