If the Laoyam Eagles want to keep their incredible win streak going at the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival, it's looking like they'll have to beat out some improving competition.
The countdown is on to the festival, taking place June 20 to 22 at Vancouver's False Creek, where the Eagles will put their run of 15 consecutive junior A titles on the line.
The Eagles and other crews paddling for the Pemberton Canoe Association have been busy with a bunch of races over the past few weeks, including some to get ready for the festival in a week's time. On Sunday, June 8, the Eagles stopped in at the Dragon Zone 500 m Regatta.
"The whole team went down and we tried to make our two crews as even as possible and not stack any team, and they ended up finishing fifth and sixth in the final," said head coach Hugh Fisher.
Although Fisher said he's been encouraged by the Eagles' preparations in advance of the festival, teams they've humbled in the past seem to be closing the gap, looking to end the Pemberton squad's junior dominance.
"Other teams are very strong this year, and you can never predict how things will go on race day," said Fisher.
"But this year, we certainly got our face slapped at that last regatta."
Fisher, a two-time medallist in kayaking at the 1984 Olympics, said other programs seem to be borrowing from Pemberton's model, forming multiple teams and creating depth throughout their programs. One of those is the Eagles' chief challenger — the squad paddling out of Eric Hamber Secondary School.
"They've gone and recruited a very good coach for their crew, so they'll be a very strong rival this year for us," said Fisher. "(Our) kids will need to rise to the occasion on the day, as they always do."
The results from Sunday's regatta, and from any pre-festival race, traditionally haven't been a great indicator of the Eagles' chances to extend the streak over the years, particularly as they've generally stuck to the strategy of split squads before arriving at the big race.
"We use those early regattas to give those kids a taste of what it's all about so that when we do get to Alcan, there's nothing new that they experience," said Fisher. "And it makes the guys who are the top paddlers on the team a little more hungry, I think."
Those top paddlers will form the Eagles' A team at the festival, while some of the up-and-comers will fill out the Laoyam Falcons roster, and likely a third boat that will be entered in the race. Fisher said the Eagles would have a strong mix of male and female paddlers leading the charge towards a 16th-sraight title.
Regardless of what happens at the festival, Pemberton will continue to have a bright future in the sport. The local elementary school team, comprised of Grade 6 and 7 students and coached by veteran Eagles' paddlers, entered two boats at the B.C. School Dragon Boat Championships in Burnaby last month. They finished first and second.
Paddlers qualify for B.C. Games
Earlier this month, Pemberton also hosted the Vancouver-Squamish zone trials for the B.C. Summer Games, and at least five local athletes have earned spots on the team.
Isabel Peters, Oliver Esseltine, Jonathan Rabung, Hana Ronayne and Adrian Thompson will all compete in the canoe and kayak events at next month's Games in Nanaimo. More Pemberton paddlers may yet be added to the squad as wildcards.
The club is also expanding its summer programming this year, introducing a new program called "Regatta Ready" for athletes aged 9 to 14. The two-week camp, running July 28 to Aug. 8, takes paddlers through all the preparations leading up to a race before entering a real-life regatta.
All summer programming info can be located in the Pemberton & District Community Centre Recreation Leisure Guide.