The Pemberton Laoyam Eagles junior dragon boat team won its category at the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival (RTADBF) in Vancouver last weekend, defending its title for an incredible 12 th year.
Former Olympic gold medalist Dr. Hugh Fisher organized the team over a decade ago and despite the fact that athletes come and go on a regular basis - the Eagles usually range from Grade 10 to Grade 12 - the team continues to win.
It seems impossible. Pemberton and Mt. Currie are small communities with few students to pick from. And the team trains on One Mile Lake - a water surface that's smaller than any competition venue. Their competitors have also gotten a lot more serious about paddling in recent years, especially the Eric Hamber school team that has placed second to the Eagles in so many races.
This year the Eagles won their final race in a time of one minute, 57.15 seconds, over four seconds ahead of Eric Hamber. It was also the fastest time on the 500-metre course by any team in the junior or adult mixed categories.
The Eagles won every heat on their way to the finals, some by as much as 20 seconds.
Dr. Fisher credits the win to a strong group of Grade 12 paddlers that have been with the team for several years.
"We've been blessed the last few years by having a strong group of boys come through from about Grade 9, and they've stuck with it," he said. "They pull the boat and just get bigger and faster every year. It's been tough for the competition but it makes it worrisome for next year because they're all graduating."
A dragon boat has 10 paddlers on either side, a drummer and a tillerman. Races range from 500 metre sprints to a 2,000 metre Guts and Glory competition.
The RTADBF is itself one of the biggest competitions of its kind in North America, and Dr. Fisher believes that the crowd at False Creek on Saturday was over 50,000 strong including crews and spectators. But the loudest cheering section is from Pemberton and Mt. Currie, where residents have made it a tradition to head to the city to cheer on their teams.
In addition to the Eagles, the Laoyam Falcons also participated in the junior event. Made up of paddlers from Grade 8 and Grade 9, the Falcons are like a farm team for the Eagles, and one of the reasons Dr. Fisher says the Eagles do so well.
They placed sixth overall, but were within a stroke of third place.
"They were right in there as well this year, and we're really strong in the qualifiers - which is amazing because when you look at them they're just kids."
Members of the Laoyam Eagles joined a women's Eagles team that placed second in both the 500-metre event and the 2,000-metre Guts and Glory race. In both races they were a close second to the world champion team from False Creek.
"It was phenomenal, the team did a really great job and it's arguably one of the best teams we've had," said Dr. Fisher.
Finally, Dr. Fisher himself rowed with the Bald Eagles team in the adult mixed categories. The team placed seventh in the 500-metre race after a four-way photo finish.
The team also placed second in the Guts and Glory race, which was the event the team was training for.
"Our forte is making sharp turns and usually the race has a sharp turn that's exciting to watch and to do it, but this year they took away that advantage from us and put in a wider turn that just wasn't as much fun as it has been in the past," said Dr. Fish. "Still, it's a pretty good result for the Baldies."
Next weekend, July 3-4, Whistler will host the third annual Whistler Dragon Boat Festival, taking place at Rainbow Park on Alta Lake. The event is also the Canadian National Dragon Boat Championships. Upwards of 2,000 paddlers are expected to take part.
Pemberton will enter at least one adult team, but at press time organizers waiting to find out if enough teams have entered in the junior category for the race to count as a national championship before entering the Laoyam Eagles. A minimum of three teams have to be in a category for it to qualify as championship.