Sept. 10 2014 12:00 AM

How an Ole Man found new life on a boat with a dragon

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I arrive for my 7:30 a.m. breakfast appointment at the Soup Spoon Cafe and Rob Flanders hands me a postcard.

The OleMan's Adventure: "Did you know that there is a species of bamboo tree whose seed remains dormant for the first few years of its life? When it's ready, the seed then sprouts forth to become a tree of 40 feet in just six weeks. This image encapsulates the adventure that has become my life as I near my seventies."

There is a caricature of him with his trademark red, frond-like beard and a smile that nearly meets his ear. A compass is at the bottom, next to an ornate sculpture of a dragon head.

The waitress juggles three plates of breakfast to our table. Alan’s Smoky Scramble for me.

Flanders gets French toast and bacon. She then sets another plate in front of him with eggs over easy, potatoes, marble toast and more bacon.

He can pack some calories.

Flanders is a Soup Spoon icon. He’s the owner and creator of Rudy Baggs coffee. The self-made barista regularly charms customers with stories as he preps hot cups of joe.

But today isn’t about coffee or even yoga, a passion of his since the early 2000s.

Nope, he’s a day away from hopping on a plane for Italy to do the bravest, craziest thing in his 68 years on the planet yet.

Flanders is leaving for Ravena, Italy, to be on a Canadian team at the International Dragon Boat Crew Club World Championships.

A mouthful for sure.

A miracle to Flanders.

He’s animated and appears constantly bouncing, shifting, gesturing or emphasizing something.

“I’m feeling good. Feeling strong.”

He rapid fires names of coaches, teams, cities he’s trained in over the short three years he’s been consumed by this sport. Yes, dragon boating is a sport.

There are professional dragon boaters.

And Flanders has a plan to be one of them, eventually dreaming to build a world-class training facility in Lansing for the Midwest.

He’s not afraid to dream this big, to dream with this much eccentricity, with this much verve.

He’s not afraid any more.

“It’s about being a part of something bigger than myself,” he says.

LATE-LIFE ATHLETE

Flanders is “a homeboy homeboy.”

That’s how he describes his roots as a Lansing native. He graduated from Sexton in 1964.

“I was born in Lansing,” he says. “Graduated from the same high school my mother graduated from. My children graduated from there too.”

His father worked for General Motors. Except for a few transfers before Flanders was in the fifth grade, the family stayed rooted in the capital city.

“I never left except for six months at Wayne State University,” he says.

He doesn’t belabor that story.

“I got a woman pregnant, got married and came home.”

Flanders describes his younger self as a man who would do anything but make waves.

“I grew up in a family who I perceived and believed was very competitive,” he says. “Nobody ever beat my father. Rather than lose it’s better not to compete. I spent a whole life of not competing.”

Athleticism and competition came after Flanders’ children got involved in sports.

“As part of their growing up I started training and lifting,” he says describing his daughter getting ready for a triathlon. “I love training with my daughter, she’s a horse.”

Flanders said his father was the good-at-everything type.

“In some ways my life is mirroring his,” he says. “At 60 he started skiing and by 65 he was trying out for the national ski patrol and he was teaching blind people. And then he started sailboarding and then he started teaching that for the university. I’ve got some good blood. I’ve got some good genes here.”

Finding his athleticism and competitive side was a process that he says helped him “deal with the fears, you know? Allow myself to be visible, to be seen, to be just who I am.”

DRAGON HEART 

Flanders is an adviser for this weekend’s Capital City Dragon Boat Race, hosted by the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing. He’s helped coach how the teams are put together, coordinated with the American Dragon Boat Association for their participation and equipment.

SIDEBAR: THIRD DRAGON BOAT RACE TWICE AS BIG, INCLUDES VENDORS AND FOOD TRUCKS

It’s a huge role born out of him slapping together a team for the first race in 2011.

“That weekend was magical,” he says.

The team of 20, named “Dragon Heart,” actually won the race. In a television interview on the riverfront that day, they roared their battle cry for the cameras with Flanders’ booming tenor cracking from the force of his lungs.

“One mind!”

“One heart!”

“One body!”

“Dragon heart!”

Flanders wasn’t a paddler in that event. He held the flag catcher role, seated on the head of the dragon at the bow reaching to snatch up the flagpole before the other team does. He set the count for the team, spoke words of inspiration and bellowed the final call, “Power!!” for the last few meters of the race signaling for the team to dig in.

Being on the river, being with a group of people and the physicality sparked an obsession.

The unison attracted him. Unlike other team sports with positions and roles, everyone has one mission and role in dragon boating: paddling.

“There’s something about it that’s so Zen and so yogic to me,” he says. “I believe in the heart of my hearts if we get 20 people to do the same exact thing at the same time we’d change the world. There’d be a consciousness shift.”

Ron Hau, president of the American Dragon Boat Association, says the sport has been exploding since the mid-80s.”

Flanders, or “Captain Red Beard,” as Hau calls him, is special. He’s among a small percentage of people who catch the dragon boating bug. Weekend warriors are more the norm, he says.

Flanders bought a dragon boat immediately after the 2011 race.

“That’s kind of unusual,” Hau says. “Normally people are with it a half dozen years before buying a boat.

Flanders says buying the boat seemed like a natural next step.

“You can’t ride a bike without a bike,” he says.

The feeling you get from dragon boating?

“It’s just giddy,” he says. “You can’t help but have fun. And when you’re in the boat, yep for those 350 meters you work hard. Yep you’re tired. And you get off the boat and you’re just giddy.”

OLE MAN’S ADVENTURE

The same energy that propels Flanders’ enthusiasm equally makes tears come easy.

He emits a drive about the sport, about its potential for changing a community, about his role in that change.

“Beyond bringing dragon boating to mid- Michigan what else can I do?” he says. “How can I inspire? I still want the gold medal. But how can I inspire?”

This chapter in his life represents a chance to practice a new adventure. The adventure of life.

“Some of my adventure has been getting through the day,” he said. “I didn’t decide I wanted to live until I was 55.”

Flanders is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic.

“I started drinking to die,” he says. “Through the process of the steps, I learned that.”

It wasn’t until 55 when ‘I said I’m ready. Is there room on this planet for me?’”

He shares the pieces of his addiction story freely, but in fragments.

“I loved pot. I loved cocaine. I think I started drinking at 12, 13, 14 … early adolescence.”

He doesn’t bother with dates. Time is foggy and fleeting.

“I remember the first meeting I went to but I said I’m not keeping dates,” he says, estimating he’s been sober 13 or 14 years now.

Recovery was a hard practice to find. His first attempt at age 42 he said after a long time using and drinking, doing “lots of damage.”

“I was sober probably 10 years, then found religion, left recovery and got drunk again.”

Found religion and left recovery?

“I got drunk on Jesus.”

He said he stopped going to meetings and “I got religiously proud,” and fell off the wagon.

The trip to Italy is his second time out of the country.

“I went to Israel on a pilgrimage at one point” some time in the 1980s, he says. “I went from New Age to Christianity to Messianic Judaism. I also thought the world was coming to an end with Y2K. I was stocking beans and shit.”

He said looking back, “I was so full of fear. I lived a life of fear.”

Today, he says he goes to meetings, practices yoga, trains hard for dragon boating and lives to serve.

“I’ve always been a searcher,” he says, “Looking, finding. But not anymore. I’m seeking spirit in a much different way. It’s not outside any more.”

THE LANSING FOUR

Flanders is a powerhouse of enthusiasm.

It’s infectious and influential.

After the 2011 Capital City Dragon Boat Race, Flanders learned of a dragon boat for sale for $10,000. It was a Hong Kong style boat, not as ornate as what is used in festi vals and more lightweight.

He approached some friends. “I’m gonna buy a boat, you want in?”

He says to me, “Meanwhile, I don’t have a pot to piss in.”

A handful of friends threw in cash to buy the boat.

Then a group of them went to Florida for an intense dragon boat camp.

Two had never paddled. Rob had been a flag catcher. Johanna Johnson, his partner, had been the drummer.

“They called us the Lansing Four,” Flanders says. “They couldn’t believe we had been basically in one race. Then we bought a boat. They just couldn’t believe we did this.”

Larry Stegman and Tom Barthel make up the rest of the four.

“We show up at camp with effectively no experience, talking about how we just bought a boat and they put us in a boat with people, some of whom had decades of experience.,” Stegman says. “Our coach, Albert McDonald, was a gold medalist and legend in flat water paddling with 40-plus years of experience. He generally referred to groups by where they were from and started calling us the Lansing Four.”

“That first year at camp was tough beyond description, but it was also a spectacular experience,” Stegman says. “The people at the camp embraced us and our inexperience, and we came away stronger and wiser. Now when we go back to camp, being part of the Lansing Four earns us an odd sort of respect. We wear the name with honor.”

Stegman says training on the dragon boat team — now named Anahata — can be brutal and Flanders can get intense.

But he says it’s a good thing for Flanders.

“I think it has made him both focused and more intense, but also more content and happy,” Stegman says.

LIVING CLOSE TO THE EDGE

Flanders says he’s eager to get to Italy. He’s not sure he’s ready.

He’s competing in the 60C category for those 60 and over.

When he comes back he goes straight to Adado Riverfront Park for the Capital City Dragon Boat Race. He’ll captain the Anahata team. He’ll welcome Hau and the American Dragon Boat Association, which is bringing four boats for the event. There are 30 teams expected from around the Lansing area, many are teams of survivors of cancer, abuse and addiction.

“Deep inside I just believe everybody has that spark of something,” he says. “They do. The spark of who they are. Be all of who you are. If you do that, we win.”

Winning came as Flanders worked through the recovery process.

“Because of what my perception of who my father was, and the decisions, the lies that I believed, I didn’t know what it was to be a man.”

Flanders’ voice begins to crack and he struggles to get his words out.

A friend and sponsor became the model for getting clean.

“He walked the walk,” Flanders says. “He was raw, he was vulnerable and he struggled. For him to get sober it was brutal and yet he kept at it and kept at it and he struggled with the concept of God. His level of honesty and his vulnerability, it was that relationship that allowed me to begin to go in the closet, turn on the light and begin to work from there to clean it up and to move forward.

“I love being clean,” he says. “No regrets.

I live close to the edge, I love it close to the edge. It gets scary. That’s where creation is.”

Flanders won’t be paddling this weekend. He’ll be perched on the flag catcher throne, his signature beard probably freshly dyed to be blazing red. He wants his Anahata team to feel the experience of paddling on the Grand River. He wants them to see and feel the city along one of its natural veins. He wants them to start building community in unison.

“It’s not about me,” he says. “Yeah it’s fun. Yeah I’m having a blast. Yeah I’m loving the training. Yeah, I’d love to come home and have a Gold Medal. But that’s not what it is. The bigger part of that is developing this sport in this community because it’s so enriching.”

Last Friday and Saturday Flanders posted on the OleMan’s Adventure Facebook wall from Italy.

His team won a Bronze Medal by 0.1 second in a 200-meter race.

“Improbable,” he writes.

And he’s bringing home a Gold Medal for the 500 meter race, “by .1 second…again!"

“Oh yeah, know what that means? It means that a small town Midwestern boy, the OleMan, is a Gold Medal-winning world champion. Did I say improbable? I did.”


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