The 10th Annual Oshkosh Community Dragonboat Race & Festival


BY Jane Spietz

WHAT: 10th Annual Oshkosh Community Dragonboat Race & Festival
WHERE: Leach Amphitheater & Riverside Park, Oshkosh WI
WHEN: Saturday, September 19, 2015  8 AM – 4 PM

“Ready, ready,” “let it ride,” “take it away,” “paddles up.”  For those of you unfamiliar with these terms, they are some of the common commands associated with the sport of Dragonboat Racing. This ancient water sport originated in southern China over 2,400 years ago and Dragonboat Racing has been held there annually as a component of religious and folk events. The goals of the races were to prevent bad luck and to help generate adequate rainfall by the rain gods. The dragon has been revered in traditional Chinese culture and thus Dragonboats feature a dragon’s head in the bow of the boat and a dragon tail in the stern. Dragonboat racing became an international sport beginning in Hong Kong in 1976.

Modern Dragonboat Racing typically involves 20 paddlers seated in a 40 foot canoe-like vessel. A drummer seated in the front faces the paddlers to provide a steady tempo and verbal encouragement to keep them “in sync.” A Dragonboat team with synchronized paddle strokes is much more likely to defeat a team with lots of “muscle” that does not paddle in harmony. Synchronicity is the key to victory.

This year the annual Oshkosh Community Dragonboat Race & Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary. The Oshkosh YMCA & UW Oshkosh have been the main partners responsible for organizing and putting this huge event on. It is held as part of the UW Oshkosh Fall Fest on the Fox celebration. This year Chancellor Andrew J. Leavitt will be installed as the 11th chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh on Friday, September 18 at 2 PM through a ceremony to be held at the EAA Museum.

The Dragonboat Race & Festival event takes place at the beautiful Leach Amphitheater and Riverside Park in Oshkosh. The boats race along a 250 foot stretch of the Fox River, usually four at a time. There are different team divisions, and local Dragonboat teams race alongside professional teams from other communities. Cancer survivor teams also participate in the races. Winning teams receive awards at the end of the day. It is incredibly exciting for spectators to cheer their favorite team on, or just to view the fast-paced action of the boats.

Lester Millette, Branch Executive at the Downtown Oshkosh YMCA, serves as the Marshal for the Oshkosh Community Dragonboat Race. It is Millette’s job to organize and load all of the teams onto the boats for the races and to keep the races running on time. Millette offered some personal reflections on the event.

“I enjoy seeing the friendships and the good will of the cancer survivors teams warms my heart every year. The crazy costumes and excited participants always make my day. The teams are out to have fun and I enjoy goofing around with them. My motivation to continue being involved with the races is the people you get to meet and work with. Seeing the same paddlers and volunteers year after year and being able to build relationships with them is great. Also working with the Dragonboat committee is so much fun. Staff from the University and the YMCA work very hard to make the races possible and they are truly a great group of people.”

One of the most important persons in the Dragonboat is the steersperson. Matt Suwalski is Assistant Director for Business & Retail Services at the UW Oshkosh Reeve Union. Suwalski has served as a steersperson in Oshkosh for the last 6 years. He was trained locally by Rick Granite from the Racine Dragonboat Club and in Florida by Andrew Fox and his Great White North Steering Clinic. Suwalski commented on what his responsibilities are as a Dragonboat steersperson and shared some memorable experiences from past Dragonboat Races.

“As a steersperson my primary responsibility is safety. I coach all teams on the basic commands on how to maneuver and control a Dragonboat for a safe racing event. After that, I enjoy coaching teams on how to have fun while racing and improve their skills. During the practice weekend, my responsibilities will include getting a team ready to participate in the festival, which includes understanding how the race start works as well as the mechanics of the race itself. We will participate in drills to help teams learn to paddle together and build cohesion and provide coaching techniques where needed. During the race the steersperson is provided to assist the team get to the starts, but normally our focus is on the conditions of the race and the logistics of the starts and finishes. There are a lot of factors that make our jobs, difficult wind, other boats, communications, and we want the race to be as safe as possible.

dragonboat2My favorite memories are of the smiles on faces of the people who race during the day win or lose from teams that are having fun. It’s not always about the winning, but about the teamwork, friendship and fun that means the most. However, we have had some great races over the years as well, like last year’s race between Arashi and Paddling for MB which was a nail biter. This showed the competitive spirit for two great teams and how two great stories can how such a great finish. Paddling for MB dethroned Arashi who has won the event for a few years running to take the Grand Champion title.

Another humbling moment is the ceremony that takes place during the break over lunch to honor those cancer survivors who are with us and those who are not. This continues to be a great tradition that I am glad we continue to honor at our festival and I have such a great respect for the paddlers who participate.”

The Dragonboat Festival portion of the event offers fun for all ages. Live entertainment, concessions and many family activities are among the offerings. And it is interesting for visitors just to wander through the “Athletes Village” on the grounds of the Leach Amphitheater to view the various Dragonboat team tents (some colorfully decorated) and team members hanging out between race heats.

The Oshkosh Dragonboat Race & Festival is much more than just a fun, family experience. Proceeds from the community event go to two very worthy causes:

1. The Oshkosh Community Dragonboat Scholarship, a financial-need based scholarship available to Winnebago County residents seeking to fulfill their personal, academic, or career goals through a degree program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

2. The YMCA Annual Campaign, offering membership assistance to more than 2,400 youth, families and individuals every year. The Annual Campaign assures the participation of older adults, individuals with disabilities, group home members, and financially-challenged individuals at the Oshkosh Community YMCA.

I have served as the Captain of the Oshkosh/Winnebago County Housing Authority’s Powers of Authority Dragonboat team since 2010. There are many details that captains are required to attend to, but it is also extremely satisfying to guide your team from the process of team registration early in the season all the way to the expected organized chaos experienced as Race Day approaches. I was incredibly proud when my team achieved the second place Community Award for a local, non-professional Dragonboat team in 2014. The best part was when we received an official engraved Dragonboat paddle!

Ryan Hamann, an English major at UW Oshkosh, paddled with the Powers of Authority team in 2014. Hamann remarked about his experience as a ‘rookie’ paddler.

dragonboat1“It was great to participate in collaboration with new people working toward a common goal. And the thrill of crossing the finish line was exhilarating!”

Jordalyn Simpson, from Deerfield WI, is a Biology/Spanish major at UW Oshkosh who has joined the Powers of Authority team for the 2015 races.

Simpson stated, “The fact that the Oshkosh community sponsors such a large event which offers amazing team building opportunities is great.”

The Oshkosh Community Dragonboat Planning Committee works hard to put the Dragonboat Race & Festival together. Jeci Casperson, UW Oshkosh’s Special Events Coordinator, and Kelly Kramp, UW Oshkosh’s Reeve Union Marketing Manager, are on the Committee. The two expressed what they are most looking forward to during this year’s race and festival. 

“The event would not be possible if the UW Oshkosh and YMCA staff on the committee were not dedicated to executing a fantastic community event. Overall, Jeci and I are looking forward to seeing the approximately 34 teams have a great time paddling the waterways of Oshkosh. We love seeing the enjoyment experienced by the families that attend the event, watching the races, participating in the many family land activities and enjoying the main stage entertainment line-up. We are looking forward to an amazing event!”

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