Tom Arnold recalls the moments before he took to the water for Team Canada in Tampa Bay, Fla.
It was the 2011 Dragon Boat World Championships, and Arnold was struck by the poise and athleticism of each competitor around him.
“I’m looking around at the other teams beside us and most of the guys have Olympic tattoos,” Arnold said. “There’s no doubt about this being a high-level sport.”
As an employee at Vancouver Island Paddling and member of Victoria’s Gorging Dragons, Arnold is part of a dedicated number of Vancouver Islanders who use dragon boating as a way of scratching that competitive itch that remains for many former professional athletes.
“Growing up, you maybe make semi-pro at best, but if you don’t make that leap after high school or college, that’s kind of it,” he said. “But in dragon boating, that’s not the case. Even at the world championship level, there are different age groups for competition, up to a 60-plus age category.”
While some might consider the sport a recreational activity, Arnold knows many of the 2,000 paddlers arriving this weekend for the 2013 Canada Dry Victoria Dragon Boat Festival aren’t your average competitors.
The Gorging Dragons have won the Victoria competition for the past two years, but its members are sitting out of this year’s festival to focus on the Canadian national championships at Elk Lake Aug. 23 to 25.
“It’s a full year commitment (at our level),” he said. “We’re training every week in both the dragon boat and in small boat workouts as well as gym workouts. It’s a lifestyle.”
Arnold encourages everyone to try dragon boating by connecting with Vancouver Island Paddling, VI Paddling, GO Rowing and Paddling Association or the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club.
“If people aren’t familiar with dragon boating, come down and check it out,” he says.
“What’s wonderful about this sport is there is a place for everyone.”
Festival begins Friday at Ship Point
The Victoria Dragon Boat Festival kicks off on Friday at 1 p.m with the eye-dotting ceremony at Ship Point in the Inner Harbour. The front of each boat is adorned with red paint by priests from Victoria's Ching Chung Taoist Church, who "awaken the dragon" before the races begin; according to Chinese mythology, the dragon sleeps in the mountains and travels to the water once awoken.
On Friday at 9 p.m., join dragon boaters and supporters for the Lights of Courage lantern lighting ceremony at Ship Point. Colourful lanterns will be available to purchase for $2, with all proceeds going to the B.C. Cancer Foundation.
Dragon boat races take place all day Saturday and Sunday, with the fastest paddlers taking home the coveted 2013 title Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.
The Inner Harbour will also feature two music and entertainment stages, a beer garden, kids' tent, food court, a race viewing area and a massage tent.
For more information, visit victoriadragonboat.com.