SAN FRANCISCO — A presumptuous mind or two may assume that dragon boat racing — with roots that trace over 2,000 years to the southern provinces of China and growing ranks of rabid practitioners and fans in the APA community over the past few decades — is primarily the sport of Asians.
But athlete diversity in dragon boat racing has been prevalent for many years. The Hong Kong Tourism Bureau conducted the first international dragon boat races in 1976, and the subsequent donation of boats to countries around the world led to a massive international interest in the sport. With the creation of the International Dragon Boat Federation, festival racing associations have been established in over 45 countries including Australia, Dubai, Costa Rica, France, Jamaica, South Africa, Russia, Norway, Poland, Namibia and Iran.
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The San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival has long drawn participants from many ethnicities and races as well as ages and backgrounds.
“The diversity of the San Francisco festival embodies the sport’s growth and appeal to athletes outside of the APA community,” said Festival Race Director Hans Wu. “Dragon Boat racing has the universal aspect of bringing motivated people together as a team to accomplish a goal. ”
Festival coach Jennifer Eng said such a multicultural festival only enhances the experience. “We are definitely stronger because we are diverse,” she said. “There are Asians, Latinos, Caucasians and Black athletes that now compete in the festivals, and we now have a better race caliber.”
And she should know. Eng, 33, has participated in the festival for over ten years and recently collaborated to coach dragon boat teams that exhibit the sport’s diversity — and not just ethnic or racial diversity. The Paddle Past Cancer team she coaches is a collection of cancer survivors whose goal is to promote cancer awareness and inspiration to the surrounding community. Although the majority of paddlers are Caucasian, Paddle Past Cancer has a diverse range of ethnicities and ages.
Eng also coaches the San Francisco Rainbow Koi team, comprised of members of various ethnicities from the LGBT community. The team was formed to provide support and pride for members of the LGBT community through commitment and teamwork.
“Both teams compete through a form of fighting adversity, whether it is a physical or societal issue,” Eng said. “They are the first teams of their kind, and they contribute to the sports diversity in a different way.”
The sport has also brought forth generational diversity. Kathleen Chan, who competes with the Dragon Warrior team in the Masters Division for athletes 40-years-old and older, said the sport was perfect for people of all ages.
“It promotes health and provides the youth with teamwork-oriented skills,” said Chan, who has paddled in races around the world for more then ten years. “It is such a big thing in other countries outside of Asia. I have been able to meet so many different cultures through the camaraderie of each festival.”