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Laoyam Eagles defend title for sixth year

Dragon boaters overcome obstacles to win junior category

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The Laoyam Eagles pulled off an upset to win their category in this year’s Alcan Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver, even though they were the favourites coming in after winning the previous five consecutive championships.

"It was kind of exciting this year," said Dr. Hugh Fisher, the Eagles’ coach and the founder of Pemberton’s successful dragon boat program. "I wasn’t as confident of our performance this year. It took an awful lot of work on the part of the team."

The Laoyam Eagles represent Pemberton Secondary School, with students from as young as Grade 8 joining the team. They have been successful in the past, going as far as Poland to represent Canada in the world championships.

They won every heat this year, and held off a strong team from Eric Hamber Secondary in Vancouver in the final heat to once again take the title.

There were several reasons why the Eagles were underdogs this year. The first was the Eric Hamber program.

"This high school was really gunning for them," said Fisher. "(Eric Hamber) did a lot of extra training, they hired weight lifting coaches, did cross-training, and they were in the boat all winter. They were a team that had finished second a whole bunch of times, and they finished second again."

There were also four strong teams from Oregon in the race.

"Looking at the other teams, there were guys with bears, they were big – they looked like an American football team compared to us. The guys were a little intimidated, so I said to them they should just sit down and relax, and they did," said Fisher.

Another reason the Eagles were challenged this year was the fact that they had expected 15 paddlers to return from previous years, but only had six or seven veterans to work with.

"We started off with a newer group this year, and I think it’s fair to say the team was built around Grade 9s – there was a big section of Grade 9 boys in the boat, some older kids, and even some Grade 8 girls. It wasn’t a big, experienced crew, and they had their work cut out for them."

The injury bug was also out to get the Eagles. One of the paddlers broke an ankle the day before the race, and ended up paddling anyway, beside another student with a broken leg.

Another factor was the use of new European-style boats that are shorter and narrower than the kids were used to, which means that there was less room to paddle.

"Your stroke had to be about perfect otherwise you would end up bumping into one another," Fisher explained.

Even the Laoyam Falcons, the second team for Pemberton Secondary, had a successful race. They finished fourth overall in the Junior B division, a 10 th of a second off the podium, despite the fact that the crew was made up mainly of Grade 8s that were new to the sport, and even a few Grade 7 students from the elementary school. Most of the teams they were up against were older and more experienced.

The Pemberton Spirit women’s dragon boat team competed in both the co-ed C division and the women’s division. They finished second in C Division, taking on boats that were mainly paddled by men. In the women’s division they were fifth after a close race. The first team across the line was the False Creek team which is looking to represent Canada again at the world championships.

The Bald Eagles, a Pemberton Men’s team, finished fifth in the competitive A division after working their way up through the brackets. They were less than a boat length back of second place at the end of a close final race.

Fisher and a few other Bald Eagles also raced for a team in the co-ed A division called Beat Pete, which was gunning for a Vancouver paddler named Pete who was coaching down in Oregon. They succeeded, finishing first in their division against Pete’s team.

"It was a great weekend," said Fisher. "The weather was fantastic, the new venue was great, the new boats were difficult but everyone adapted to them, the kids enjoyed the Trooper concert on Saturday night – it was really one to remember."

Although the team usually competes in the Kelowna Regatta, Fisher says he will focus instead on coaching a group of seven Pemberton rowers who are pre-qualified to competed at the Canada Games in kayak, canoe and outrigger canoe races. He may also try to bring a couple of teams to the International Dragon Boat Federation Championships in Hawaii this August.

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