- May 11, 2019
They already had made a splash, even before they hit the water.
The Nathan Benderson Park All-Cancer Survivors had just crossed the finish line July 21 in the first race of the Small Boat Division 200 meters of the 2022 International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships in Sarasota.
The victory helped secure another division championship for a NBP program that served notice to the Dragon Boat world that it can compete with any program, established or not.
But as they crossed the finish line, a huge wake hit the NBP boat and sent the 10 paddlers into the water.
Wanted or not, it was a celebratory swim.
Since the all-cancer division was made up of just two teams — NBP and Dragon Boat Charleston — the race organizers decided to combine the division with the four-team U24 Open Division (for ages 18-24). Brian Long, a member of the NBP All-Cancer Survivors and the husband of NPB Paddling Coach Angela Long, said one of the U24 teams went so fast that it created the powerful wake, which the NBP team could not avoid.
"I was in the stroke seat, so right at the front of the boat," Long said. "We're tippy boats, so once we were in that wake, the whole thing just went (over). We almost went over on our second and third heats, too. We had to keep paddling hard after the finish line to get through it. But we won our division of each heat, so it was OK."
The 200 meter sprints combine the times of three heats to determine an overall champion. Since NBP won each heat over Dragon Boat Charleston to claim the title.
It was not the only gold medal performance of the week for NBP paddlers. The park's boats took home six gold medals. The All-Cancer Survivors also won the short boat 500 meters and the 2,000 meters. The NBP Dragons Senior B Mixed team (men and women) took gold in the 500 meters; and the NBP Survivors in Sync breast cancer survivor team took gold in the 200 meters and 500 meters.
While those teams celebrated their boat's victories, the combined performance was a success for the NBP dragon boat program and paddling in the Sarasota-Manatee counties area.
Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy CEO Stephen Rodriguez said the event's economic impact would not be known for a month or two, but he was confident it would be significant.
"We have almost 3,000 people here from out of town who are athletes and supporters," Rodriguez said. "They have all been here for approximately 10 days. That is nice for our community. We're in the low season right now, so any time we can draw business like this during the summer months, that is wonderful for everyone."
Rodriguez said it has been a boon to be the first United States venue to host the Club Crew World Championships. He hopes the community's exposure to the event makes more people in the area aware of the sport and the way it is growing. Hopefully, Rodriguez said, those people will then try the sport themselves through one of Benderson Park's teams.
Survivors In Sync paddler Fern Millman is hoping more people do try the program. Millman said she has been paddling with the park's teams since 2014.
While she has improved over the years, she never thought she would participate in such a prestigious event. The excitement of the event did not hit her fully until the opening ceremonies July 18. When she arrived to the park and saw the set-up, plus everyone in attendance, she became antsy.
Now, she's a champion.
"This is a big deal," Millman said. "It is an amazing feeling. When we beat Knot a Breast, our biggest competition, by two and a half seconds in that first heat (of the 200 meter sprints), that sent us through the roof. To me, it's a lot more important to feel that competition than to have actual medals. It is great to know that we won against other great teams."
Rodriguez said he is unsure when or if the Club Crew World Championships will return to the park, as venues are decided through a bidding process, but other important dragon boat events are already on the schedule, like the Club Crew National Championships, which will hit Benderson Park in 2023, 2025 and 2027.