Lisa Durbin had a lot of time on her hands when she retired in 2013. She was active and fond of sports throughout most of her life, but she couldn’t find the right post-career activity.
“I wanted have a little fun while I was still healthy,” Durbin said.
Where most would go with golf, tennis, water aerobics or more golf, Durbin took a road less paddled. Durbin expressed an interest in rowing and her manager told her about dragon boat racing.
“I said, ‘What in the heck is that?’ I never heard of it.”
Durbin thought it was made up. Nearing 60, she worried that the transition would be tough. Then she went to a few practices, and as Durbin recalled, before she knew it, she was “bitten by the dragon.”
Four years later, Durbin has competed in two club dragon boat championships in Ravenna, Italy and Adelaide, Australia. She’ll soon be heading to Kunming, China to represent the U.S. as a member of the Women’s Senior C National Team.
Don’t get it twisted — Durbin treats dragon boat racing like a job. Her fitness regimen would kick this writer’s ass. She rows between 15K and 20K every week on a single person outrigger canoe. There’s the 10 miles a week with dragon boat practice. Durbin goes to the gym three times a week, and she sees a triathlon trainer once a week.
Some people join rowing to stay in shape. Others are looking for a social team sport to keep busy and meet people. There are different motivations and competition levels for all ages, Durbin said. It’s a low-pressure environment in which an athlete can take the time to improve and excel at something with enough effort.
As for the preparation, Durbin and her team stretch before they hit the water. Durbin and her Jacksonville Dragon Boat Club teammates then don vests and gloves and drill on technique, power and endurance. High intensity interval training (HIIT) also helps.
Dragon boat racing originated in Ancient China, and it’s the glossy, amped up cousin of the Olympic rowing you might see on TV. Dragon boats are usually 42-feet-long and hold 20 paddlers with 10 on each side. The first two paddlers set the pace for the rest of the team because synchronization is key. There’s also a teammate who operates the rudder at the back.
Durbin said she’s now in love with the sport and is exhilarated every time she gets off the boat. When the paddlers get out on the water, she described the feeling as super-charged.
“What drew me in, the reason I never wanted to stop, when you’re out on the water you’re totally into what you are doing — the water, the intensity and the scenery around you,” Durbin said. “It’s all about how you’re trying to get better and how you’re trying to improve your technique.”
On the water, your mind is at ease and all the distractions vanish. It’s this form of camaraderie that assists Durbin with an active retirement.
“You’re not thinking about what you did today or what you’ll do tomorrow or what you haven’t done or what you need to take care of,” Durbin added. “The people I’ve met are such a welcoming fun group with a single-minded mission to be the best they can be.”
Dragon boat racing is unique for a few decorative reasons.
“Do you know any other sport that has a dragon head at the front and a tail and the back?” Durbin said.
For competitions, dragon boats are equipped with a striking dragon head and tail at the front and back of the boat and some are painted with scales. There’s no aerodynamic purpose or extra edge, the decorations are simply for looks.
Oh yeah, about the thumping noise. There’s also a drummer involved, which Durbin said are instrumental. The drummer stands at the front of the boat, and is usually a lightweight who follows the rhythm of the paddlers. Ok, so it’s not exactly the guitarist from “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but it’s a bit jarring and slightly soothing watching the boat zoom through the water with each pound of the drum.
There were rigorous tryouts to get on the national team in a series of camps around the U.S. Durbin made the team last year after narrowly missing a year ago.
“The coaches are looking for coachability, technique and interactions with teammates,” Durbin said. “The biggest [attribute] was moving a boat from point A to point B.”
The national team will train in New Jersey, New York, Washington D.C., and eventually in China before the competition in October. Durbin points to the tough competition and Kunming’s elevation of 6,000 feet as the major challenges.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m caught up in this,” she laughed.