With one of dragon boat racing's premier events coming to Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota on July 18-24, the paddling world will be watching.
But what has been happening in the days leading up to the 2022 International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships when no one was watching?
A lot of blood and sweat — and yes, even a few tears, according to the park's paddlers. If that is what it takes for a shot to call themselves world champions, so be it.
Even for the people who, as recently as a few years ago, didn't know what dragon boat was.
That is the position in which Sarasota paddler Don Bickel finds himself. In fact, Bickel's introduction to dragon boat was not as a paddler at all, but a strength coach. Angela Long, Benderson Park's head paddling coach, had asked him to work as the strength coach for Survivors in Sync, the park's breast cancer survivor team. SIS had just finished fourth at the 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy, a close analogue to the Club Crew World Championships but only for breast cancer survivor teams. Long thought putting the team through a real strength program would enhance its shot at a gold medal the next time an event of that scale came around. After coming so close to the podium, no one wanted to slow down.
Bickel did work with SIS, but over time he also took up paddling himself. To his surprise — at least the first time — this was no easy feat.
"I have done Cross-Fit and I have done Ironman triathlons, but this was different," Bickel said. "You have people relying on you to your best the whole time, to stay in sync. You're going as hard as you can. My first real race was a short one, 200 meters. It only takes about a minute to finish. At the end, I was beyond exhausted."
The Club Crew World Championships will see community club from across the globe descend on the Sarasota-Bradenton area. Benderson Park will be represented by three clubs — the NBP Dragons community team (with women's and mixed boats), the Survivors in Sync breast cancer survivors team and the NBP Warriors all-cancer survivors team. Bickel will compete in both the mixed Dragons boat and the all-cancer survivors boat; he had Leiomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that grows in smooth muscles, in his arm, but has recovered.
Bickel said this will be one of the biggest athletic events he has been a part of; he once competed in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships, but those are not quite the same thing, Bickel said with a laugh. But Bickel should have been on the world stage sooner. He was named to Team USA's Men's Senior A (40 and up) team ahead of the 2021 IDBF World Championships, which sees countries compete against each other a la soccer's World Cup. The event, which was to be hosted by Hong Kong, was canceled out of COVID-19 concerns. It was a disappointment to Bickel, though he said he was still honored to be named to the team.
While not exactly the same, Bickel said he sees the Club Crew World Championships as a second chance to compete on a big stage.
"I'm a competitive person," Bickel said. "We want to see if we can get on the podium. I know that everyone on the team has been doing everything they can do (to be at their best).
"I am excited to engage with the moment. I'll be with people who have become great friends. You always feel the excitement of warming up and lining up the boats, that focus and intensity. The only people talking are the drummer and the steerer. I try to capture that moment because after that, the racing is automatic. We know our start rate and the pace we want. We just hope we can put enough power behind it."
This will be the 13th iteration of the biennial world championships, but the first since 2018. There was no event in 2020 out of COVID-19 concerns. This will also be the first time the championships, which were held for the first time in 1996, will be held in North America.
The three teams received a taste of high-level competition during October's 2021 IBDF Club Crew Nationals, also held at the park. Survivors in Sync won its division while the NBP Dragons finished second. The NBP Warriors were the only all-cancer team to compete at nationals.
Club Crew Worlds is an event that means a lot to people. Lakewood Ranch's Cherie Landriau joined the NBP paddling program six years ago, and for five years she has held a specific dream in her head. Landriau, who paddles with the NBP Dragons, said she stood at the park's Finish Tower at the 2017 Southeastern Regional Dragon Boat Association Championships and watched as various clubs qualified for the 2017 Nationals in Mercer Lake, New Jersey. Some of those paddlers would go on to complete at the 2018 Club Crew Worlds in Szeged, Hungary. Landraiu said she made a promise to herself watching those paddlers that she would qualify for Worlds herself one day.
Five years later, her dream is about to come true.
"Competing in this event means a lot to me," Landriau said. "I am finally reaching my goal after lots of training camps and lots of fun times with my teammates. It is amazing how this team has grown and become like my family."
Admission to the event is free for spectators, though parking on the park's Regatta Island is $15. The event is also looking for volunteers. Interested parties can visit 2022ccwc.com for more information.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.