Boys and Girls Clubs of greater La Crosse prepare for 2019 Big Blue Dragon Boat festival

Fifty teams are preparing for a 300-meter race in the 2019 Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival.

Organizers say the sport of dragon boating is something people of all ages can try.

Children from the Boys and Girls Club are preparing for this weekend’s race. They are recognizing the importance of teamwork.

“What does it take? A lot of spirit, a lot of energy and drive,” said Sue Karpinski, well-being specialist with Mayo Clinic Health System.

She gets to watch these kids’ hard work come together.

“It’s phenomenal,” Karpinski said. “Talk about joy in your work when you can really see kids thrive in something.”

It’s a sport that turns a few heads.

“I was wondering at the beginning what it was,” said Mark Zwiefel, a nearby fisherman.

Dragon boat coach Dean Otterson said they get a lot of strange looks from people.

“It’s fun to see the looks on people’s faces,” Otterson said.

The boat includes 20 paddlers, as well as one drummer and steer person.

“I like to explain it as a long canoe, but you don’t use a canoe stroke,” Karpinski said. “It’s a specific dragon boat stoke.”

Madysen Ryan is a veteran with the Big Blue Dragon Boat festival. This year, she is leading the Boys and Girls Club as the youth ambassador.

“I feel really special,” Ryan said.

Knee surgery is keeping her from paddling this year, but she will be at the front of the boat as the drummer.

“It was actually a little relaxing not having to paddle,” Ryan said.

Dragon boat enthusiasts said it doesn’t take any special skills.

“Not at all,” Karpinski said. “Anybody can paddle a boat.”

Ryan said she encourages people to give it a try.

“It really pumps up the adrenaline,” Ryan said.

Otterson said it just takes a little practice.

“I have not had a group go out that did not get better,” Otterson said.

Ryan said it teaches leadership skills.

“It’s kind of fun to watch the people on the first practice who don’t know what they are doing and then watch them learn and grow, working together as a team,” Ryan said.

While every team wants to win, they are paddling toward something bigger.

“It’s not about just the racing. It’s about the community,” Otterson said.

The festival raises money for breast cancer and the Boys and Girls Club, and it gets people active.

“I think that’s awesome,” Zwiefel said. “A bunch of kids out there paddling around, I think that is good exercise for them. I think it’s great.”

Karpinski said no one loses at this event.

“(They walk way with) an ability that they didn’t know they have.”

The opening ceremony is at 7 a.m. Saturday at Copeland Park. There is no charge to attend. In addition to the dragon boat races, the festival will include music, free family activities and food.

There are other opportunities to get involved with dragon boats. Open water dragon boat is one local organization that gives people a chance to experience the sport.

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