SAN FRANCISCO — It was a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon—a perfect day to have fun, maybe hangout in the mall, do some shopping and watch a blockbuster movie. But unlike other teenagers, the members of the Galileo Celestial Dragons or GCD were out on Lake Merced doing the sport they love best—dragon boat rowing.
Indeed, these high school students from Galileo Academy of Science and Technology would rather take out their paddles on a perfect Sunday afternoon to practice hard, have fun and win. Seeing them paddle in unison without missing a beat, one can almost sense the strength of their commitment as they effortlessly glide on the water.
All that commitment and hard work has paid off. Last June, the team traveled to Macau to race as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce representative. They were the only mixed high-school team that competed against adult men paddlers in that race.
In July, GCD participated in the 2008 Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival and placed sixth out of 70 teams.
“We are the only high school team in the top tier final race, and we were competing against college teams,” said Coach Brian Suzuki.
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Underdogs of the Past
It was a grueling practice. Coach Suzuki didn’t let up as he directed his GCD team to do practice laps around the expanse of Lake Merced, while Assistant Coach Jenny Tam matched his energy in the second boat, pushing the other team with a loud and clear voice. Just two weeks before the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival, the two teams needed to be confident and ready.
GCD was formed six years ago by a group of Galileo students who were interested in dragon boat rowing. “The inspiration for starting a team came from cultural interest as well as dragon boat’s rising popularity among high schools and youth programs,” explained Betty Thai, 17, one of the team captains who has been with the team since freshman year.
But GCD was not viewed as a competitive team back then. Samantha Lee, 17, the team’s manager who joined during her sophomore year, described GCD as underdogs during past years compared to other high school teams.
Nevertheless, it attracted students from different areas of the city who wanted to experience the sport. For some, it was a chance to paddle, while for others it was a fun place to share and socialize with like-minded peers.
Both captains Thai and Frank Pan, 17, recognized this dichotomy of thought and action in the team.
“In my first years, many of us didn’t take the team seriously and found it as a place to socialize,” said Pan. “When we lost our previous coach, Gordon, the team fell into a state of confusion. [And we asked ourselves] ‘Why do we paddle? Do we want to win?’”
Thai admitted the team’s initial objective was just to have fun. However, there were also “paddlers who were truly serious about paddling” and wanted to push the team to new competition heights.
The Macau Catalyst
The team’s Macau trip last June has proven to be the catalyst that inspired its members as well as brought unity and motivation to the team.
“It opened their eyes to the possibility that they can do better and can become a part of a much bigger race—the international arena,” said Coach Suzuki.
For the members of this crew, who were all traveling outside of the country for the first time, it was not just the thrill of visiting another country that excited them — it was the fact that they would be paddling among the strongest paddlers in the world. This event awakened their competitive drive with a jolt.
Terry Tom, one of the members’ parents, said that the crew realized that they were not pushing themselves hard enough. “In Macau, they found out that the paddlers there practice everyday, three times a day,” he explained. “This is why they were such strong paddlers.”
The team went home with renewed resolve to become world-class paddlers.
“Macau [race] stands as one of the most amazing experiences our team has gone through together,” said Lee. “We met world-class paddlers, lived the world-class competition, and brought it back home to our team. From then on, we pushed ourselves to train harder than before.”
“We realized that dragon boat rowing is no joke,” Pan said. “Teams from all over the world think of the sport as their job. We understood what fast was.”
Going the Extra Mile
The impact was so tremendous that from its previous once-a-week practice, GCD decided to practice four days a week during the summer. Teams that compete in races put in more practice during the weekends in addition to land training during the weekdays. And all these are initiatives taken by the students themselves.
While GCD already has some of the most dedicated crew out there—imagine taking three bus rides just to make it to practice in Lake Merced during weekdays and weekends—they will need to go the extra mile to remain competitive. And it may not have anything to do with physical training.
“How much do we want to win determines everything,” Pan said. “If we are not mentally set to win, we have already defeated ourselves.”