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East County Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 1 month ago

Prose and Kohn: New NBP Veterans dragon boat team makes a splash

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The program is for male and female veterans injured, wounded or able-bodied.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

Dragon boat is for everyone.

It's a phrase often spoken when programs are recruiting new members. It's true, too — there's not a person alive who couldn't learn something from trying it at least once, and probably have some fun, too.

For some people, though, like military veterans, the sport can mean a little bit more. 

Rick Jensen, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant who served in Vietnam, heard of the sport five years ago when a group of women were talking about it on Anna Maria Island. Jensen asked them about it and the women, paddlers from AMI Dragon Boat, invited him to try it. He did, and instantly fell for it.

Jensen loves the sport not because it is a challenge, but because of what he feels when he's on the water — nothing. 

"You're not thinking about anything else," Jensen said. "You have no problems and no worries. All you're doing is concentrating on paddling. Is my form correct? Am I keeping in time with everyone else? It's synchronization. It's teamwork. That's what you think about." 

Eventually Jensen moved on from AMI Dragon Boat and joined the NBP Dragons, who are based at Nathan Benderson Park. He has enjoyed every second of it. A thought kept coming to him, though, itching his brain until he felt compelled to act. There should be a designated Benderson Park dragon boat team for veterans. 

"The synchronization is just like military marching," Jensen said. "Everybody is in step. I just thought, how cool would it be to form a (veterans) team? Men or women, able or disabled, doesn't make a difference to me. Military life and civilian life are quite different."

Jensen said the things soldiers do affects not only their lives but other people's as well.

"It's a lot of responsibility," he said about serving in the military. "We risk our lives and we are away from our families, possibly in a different country. Being out here has helped me with that and I think other soldiers can benefit from it, too, whether they are dealing with PTSD or something else. Here, we work as a team, we work to accomplish the mission of winning a race." 

Jensen had plans to start a veterans team at the park since September 2019 when he talked with NBP Dragons Coach Angela Long about the idea. She gave the go-ahead, until the plans were brought to a halt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jensen had to shelve the team idea for a year.

Now it is full steam ahead, though. The freshly-minted NBP Veterans, like the Survivors in Sync team for paddlers with breast cancer, will practice in tandem with the NBP Dragons under Long's guidance. Jensen said he put out a number of social media posts advertising the opportunity, with solid results. As of Nov. 3, Jensen said, the team has had 17 paddlers show up to practice because of the posts and approximately 20 more who have expressed interest in attending in the future. 

The "selfie" that Kama Beasley took on her first day of dragon boat practice at Nathan Benderson Park. Courtesy photo.

One such attendee is Kama Beasley, a Lakewood Ranch resident who served as a U.S. Navy IC3 Surface Warfare Specialist from 2010-2014. Beasley, 37, said finding out about the program was a work of divine intervention. Beasley saw a post about Benderson Park's "Veterans New Paddlers Day," held Sept. 18, on the morning of the event via Facebook's community page. It was meant to be a type of kick-off event for the group. Beasley shuffled her life around to be able to attend despite not knowing anything about dragon boat — or any other water sport, for that matter. Beasley simply felt like it was where she needed to be. 

"I had no expectations," Beasley said. "I showed up and they handed me a life vest and said 'Get in the boat.' That first day … the only thing I can compare it to is flying on glass. That's what it feels like."

Beasley said being in a group of veterans, all learning the sport together, made for a special experience. She took a photo of herself in her life vest to commemorate the occasion. Like Jensen suspected, the thrill of working as a team again appealed to Beasley and others. Beasley said seeing all the veterans digging as deep within themselves as they could to accomplish a common goal was inspiring. So inspiring that Beasley now practices with the Dragons as often as she can, sometimes three days a week. 

"I think it's amazing," Beasley, a disabled combat veteran, said of the program. "It is a great opportunity for the community. It's going to be fantastic as it grows. As a vet, to find something like this to do is huge for my personal journey. It settles my mind. It eases my anxiety, being on the water." 

That first day, Beasley said, the veterans were able to go from "hitting each other's paddles" to "not hitting each other's paddles," which I can attest is more progress than it sounds, as someone who once tried and failed at the sport. Through practicing with the Dragons, Beasley and other vets from that beginner's day have continued to get better. Now, they're ready for races. 

The veteran team's members will race with the Dragons on certain occasions. On other occasions, though, the veterans will have the dragon boat to themselves — like they did Nov. 6 in Citrus County, when the team raced against an experienced team of former U.S. Marines. It was the team's first official race. There is not a designated veteran's division of dragon boat racing at championship events yet, like there are breast cancer team divisions, but that's the hope for the future. 

Special division or not, the veterans will continue to race, continue to work on their craft — and themselves. 

Veterans interested in joining the program can visit nathanbendersonpark.org for more information and to fill out a registration form

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

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