June 13 2012 12:00 AM

DragonHeart Racing brings an ancient Chinese sport to Lansing


Over 2,000 years ago the sport of dragon boat racing first emerged in southern China. It wasn’t until last year that it finally made its way onto the waters of Lansing’s Grand River.

Labor Day weekend saw the first Capital City Dragon Boat Race, which introduced the sport to mid-Michigan and also inspired some of its novice racers, particularly Team DragonHeart. The members were hooked on the feeling of breezing down the water with a crew of 20 focused mates working in unison.

From that was born DragonHeart Racing, a Lansing-based dragon boat team that is looking for new members; all are welcome to join. Both “recreational” (just for fun) and “racing” (competitive) memberships are available. 

“We heard about the Capital City Dragon Boat Race last year and thought, ‘That sounds like fun,’” recalled DragonHeart team member Tom Barthel. “So we gathered together a loose affiliation of coworkers, family members and friends. We basically cobbled together a team a week before the race at the last minute.” 

After racing down the river in a long, flashy Taiwan-style dragon boat, Barthel realized the pensive benefits of the sport. 

“It requires a tremendous amount of mental focus,” Barthel explained. “It’s almost a very meditative activity because there are so many different components to the paddle stroke. When the boat is gliding in the water, it feels as though you’re part of one paddler, not just your individual effort. 

“There’s really nothing like the sensation of working together in sync and gliding through the water on a beautiful day on the Grand,” he added. “It’s peaceful and so much fun. It’s almost a spiritual activity. You have to experience it to really feel what it’s like.” 

The team quickly coined its motto:  “One Heart. One Mind. One Body. Dragon Heart!” The team members bonded and won the Division One gold medal at the Capital City race. That adage soon took on an extended life.

“After the race there were four or five of us sitting around thinking what now? That was so much fun,” Barthel recalled. “We wanted to continue doing it.”  

With an itch to get back on the water, some of the members scraped together cash and purchased a Hong Kong-style dragon boat from a dealer in Florida. In April, some of the DragonHeart members also attended Bow Wave, a renowned Florida-based dragon boat training camp.

“It’s a really top-notch camp: It has dragon boaters from all over the country and Canada,” Barthel said. “We learned about the finer points of dragon boating, four of us went down for a week. They had some Olympic-level Canadian coaches that translated their skills into Dragon boating. They taught us how to be a team, how to paddle.”

Rob Flanders, a DragonHeart team member, said he hopes this is the start to something much bigger.

“It’s the fastest growing water sport in the country,” Flanders said. “We just want to see what we can do in this area — bring in something new. The city is starting to turn around, it seems like the economy is getting a little better, this is just our small part.” 

“We want to help bring in some new breath to the area with a new sport and at the same time support the Capital City race, everything we’re doing is pointed to that. It’s such a wonderful event that’s great for the city.”

For event dates and membership info, visit dragonheartracing.org.