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East County Wednesday, May 25, 2022 1 month ago

Benderson Park paddling coach steers in a positive direction

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Beloved Coach Angela Long has high hopes for the future of Nathan Benderson Park's four dragon boat teams.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Editor

The woman in a neon green hat always gets out of the boat first.

She walks off the dock and toward Nathan Benderson Park's finish tower stairs, where she grabs a bottle of water. Then she positions herself facing the boat she just left, ready to give each of its paddlers a high five and a bright smile for a job well done. She then huddles the team, teaching a few lessons for next time, before getting ready to do it again with her next boat. 

Angela Long, the head paddling coach at Nathan Benderson Park, followed this routine throughout the 2022 Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival, which was held at the park May 21.

The event acted as both a celebration of the sport and a warm-up for the 2022 International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships, which will be hosted by the park July 18-24.

Whether the spectators realized it or not, the event was a showcase for Long's coaching ability. In less than a decade, she has been the dragon boat program's leading driver, taking its teams to heights unimagined when the program began. Of course, those heights can be measured by more than paddling victories.

Long, 53, started her dragon boat career in unorthodox fashion. In 2013, Nathan Benderson Park was planning for the 2014 International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival, which is an elite international competition held every three to four years. It was the first of its kind to be held in the United States and the first world-class competition held at the then-freshly constructed park. The festival was planned by Kim Bonomo, a Miami resident and a breast cancer survivor who was active in that community state-wide.

Bonomo didn't want the Sarasota area to host the event without having a team of its own competing, as that would help with the promotion. She turned to another active member of the breast cancer survivor community — Long — for help.

Long, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 35, had volunteered with several nonprofits and belonged to a support group that was mostly made up of younger people. She was a natural choice to co-found the team, except for one small problem.

Long didn't know anything about paddling. 

"I had a lot on my plate at the time, but I wanted to help," Long said. "I said I would get it going for the festival. I would hold a meeting and see what happened. I had heard about dragon boating a little bit from other survivors and had seen some photos but I had never been in a boat. Basically, that decision changed the rest of my life."

Angela Long steers the NBP Dragons toward the dock at the 2022 Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival. Long, who helped found Survivors in Sync in 2013, took over Benderson Park's entire paddling program in 2021.

Long helped organize the team but was not its coach, only a paddler. The new team, named Survivors in Sync, or SIS, began by practicing with the Tampa Pink Dragon Ladies, who helped SIS get organized as a nonprofit able to collect money for the festival. Then 2014 came, and the festival went off without a hitch.

That could have been the end of the team, but no one wanted to see it end. Bob Whitford, then the park manager, was named the team's head coach. Long remained a paddler, at least at first. Long said she quickly learned how to steer so the team could still practice if Whitford was busy.

As the park grew, Whitford became busy more often. Long transitioned into something of a permanent coach, though she would occasionally hop in the boat to paddle during festivals. Long said there was no one moment or reason that made her want to become a coach. It was simply what the team needed. She would do anything for the members of that community, she said. 

"We are truly a family," Long said. "Everyone has their stories, their reasons of why they are here. To provide this opportunity for them to get on the water and leave whatever they have going on (in their lives) on the shore, it can change people's lives. It gives people a purpose. It is something to plan for, something to work for, something to hope for. That's why I do it." 

Long started coaching for good reasons, but that didn't make the actual job any easier. She said paddlers would ask her what they were doing wrong and she would respond with "I don't know," because she didn't.

She was an inexperienced paddler herself. Over time, Her technical discernment as a coach has improved over time thanks to attending clinics and watching other coaches she has invited to practices as guests. But even when she was guessing at solutions, she won over her paddlers thanks to her warm disposition and her passion for helping. 

Laura Richards, a breast cancer survivor, joined SIS in 2014 after driving past Benderson Park during the IBCPC festival and being blown away by the sea of pink tents lining the grounds. Richards and her husband, Scott Richards, had moved to Lakewood Ranch from Boston following Richards' breast cancer treatments. They had realized life is short, Richards said, and wanted to spend the rest of it living and having fun.

In that spirit, Richards tried dragon boat racing and clicked with it instantly. It was heartening to be surrounded by so many other survivors, she said. SIS gave her an outlet to meet people with similar stories while staying active. Even though Richards joined with no dragon boat experience, she said, Long helped make the sport seem easy. 

Angela Long helped start Survivors in Sync at Benderson Park in 2013 and, after starting as a paddler, has become the park's head paddling coach. Paddlers praise Long's compassion for her athletes and her passion for the sport.

"She broke it down completely," Richards said. "She's serious about the sport, which I appreciate as an athlete, but she's also compassionate and positive and knows her stuff. Her whole aura is easy to warm up to — and she has a tough job. She does a great job of putting friendships and problems aside and always concentrates on the whole team. She's positive to everybody. She's just a good person and that counts for a lot." 

Richards said one of Long's best traits is her lack of an ego. Richards said Long tells her teams to stay humble no matter the result of a given race and practices what she preaches, always being gracious toward other teams.

Thanks to the culture that Long helped instill, Richards was able to find a group that made her move to Florida immediately worth it. Richards had such a good time on the water, she said, that she convinced Scott Richards to join the community team. Now both enjoy their time on the water together. 

Under Long's leadership, SIS thrived, not only growing in numbers but growing in competitiveness. In 2018, SIS traveled to Florence, Italy, for the IBCPC festival, where it finished fourth overall out of 125 teams. The success and recognition SIS found at the event motivated Long to reach for more of it — and showed Benderson Park the potential that area paddling teams have. 

In 2021, Long was named the park's head paddling coach. She now oversees SIS, the NBP Warriors all-cancer survivor paddlers, the NBP Dragons community paddlers and the NBP Veterans paddlers. Long has high expectations for her teams — and for individual rowers. 

Beth Turconi, of Sarasota, has been paddling in the Benderson Park dragon boat programs for six and a half years. When Turconi joined the program, on the community team, it struggled to fill all 20 seats in a given boat; now, there are approximately 130 paddlers in the program.

Long was not the team's coach then, but Turconi said Long made her feel like a superstar all the same. When Long found out Turconi was gunning for a spot on Team USA's International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships team in 2019, Long went out of her way to mentor her. 

"I made the team because of her help," Turconi said. "She's discerning and fair. Her integrity is beyond compare. It is easy to want to do better for her. She inspires the best in us because she is kind. She is not hot-headed. She is not impulsive. She takes her time, thinks about things, and is a real pleasure to paddle for."

After Turconi found out she had made the team, she arrived at practice to find a laminated sign on her designated seat in the community boat. The sign read, "Team USA sits here." Long and the rest of the coaching staff had everyone cheer for Turconi, who was moved by the gesture.

"The fact that she is now my coach, I feel like I won the lottery," Turconi. 

Not everyone in the dragon boat program needs to have Turconi's ambition. Long said the program is open to everyone, whether a recreational or a competitive paddler. But the program will continue to train certain boats to compete in a handful of elite events a year, including July's Club Crew World Championships.

As the park's dragon boat program continues to expand, Long said she finds herself doing more delegating and coaching other coaches in the program how to handle the crews. At the Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival, Long was physically in just two of the park's six competing boats, electing to watch from the beach. She's still figuring out the best seating arrangements for Worlds, and likes to get a different perspective. 

Long plans to continue steering the program's future.

"I never imagined my life would look like this," Long said. "Even after I started paddling, to be honest, I thought I would be part of this for a little while. I never projected into the future. But I love it. I think this is where I am meant to be."

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I’m the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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