“Twenty-two people. One heart.”
That’s how Kathy Pollonais-Britt described what it’s like to be part of a dragon boat racing crew.
Pollonais-Britt is a medical social worker at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and captain of KP San Francisco’s SF Dragon Healers dragon boat team.
The SF Dragon Healers and the East Bay’s KP Dragons recently completed their season by competing in the KP-sponsored 20th Annual San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival late last month on Treasure Island.
During a break between races, Pollonais-Britt explained what it’s like to race.
“You get into a zone, and you don’t think of anything until you cross the finish line,” she said. “There’s a lot of noise around you, but you’re listening and looking at the drummer at the head of the boat who beats a drum to set the pace for the paddlers.”
Her teammate, Robert Miley, AuD, said racing is a “huge adrenaline rush.” Miley is the supervising audiologist manager at KP San Francisco.
“Even if you don’t win, there’s something very gratifying about being with a team that is giving it its all.”
At the recent races, the Dragon Healer’s Gold crew earned a silver medal in the Recreational B division. The East Bay’s KP Dragons Broccoli crew won a bronze medal in the Recreational A division, and the KP Dragons Strawberries crew won bronze in the Recreational C division.
A Team That Feels Like Family
Dragon boat racing is an ancient Chinese sport that modern paddlers say is hard to resist. Nearly 140 dragon boat teams and nearly 4,000 paddlers from the United States and Canada took part in the recent Treasure Island races. They included about 125 KP employees, physicians, family, and friends.
A dragon boat crew consists of 20 paddlers, a drummer, and a steers person working together to move a 40-foot wood and fiberglass dragon boat through the water as fast as possible. Most races are 500 meters. On race days the colorful boats are decorated with ornamental dragon heads and tails.
KP Dragons steering coach Noelle Blick said the sport requires paddlers to put themselves second to the team. Blick is administrative director of a stroke prevention project at the KP NCAL Division of Research.
“Timing and synchronicity are the most important things, so dragon boat racing attracts people who can focus and connect with the other paddlers in the boat when it’s time to race.”
Blick added that the team feels like a family. Paddlers travel together to races in Portland and Long Beach each year, and senior level paddlers practice together as many as three or four times a week.
Not everyone is able to put in that much time training, and the KP teams are open to employees and physicians of all ages and abilities.
KP San Leandro Assistant Nurse Manager Ria Domingo, RN, joined the team this year. She had been a swimmer in high school, but said she never played a team sport that required working together so closely.
“This is new to me, but I’m loving it and I’m hooked. Seeing the seasoned paddlers on the first day of practice was intimidating, but they’re just a bunch of warm people and they welcomed us newbies with enthusiasm.”
Watch GoPro video of the KP Dragons Broccoli Crew’s final race from the perspective of the crew’s steers person.