`Dragon' teams pull together for charity race

Howard Neighbors

August 11, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Everybody over 40 has to take Motrin," said Mike Drummond, 44, an Ellicott City resident and coach of the Harkins Builders' dragon boat team, which is among 30 teams registered to compete in Catholic Charities' biennial dragon boat races Sept. 9.

Mark Fida, 50, also of Ellicott City, is a paddler on the Baltimore City Fire Department's dragon boat. "I even took one of those 800-milligram `horse pills' for my back," he said. "It's not like rowing a canoe," he added.

They and other Howard County residents are aching to take part in the grueling but exhilarating event at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. All proceeds stay in Maryland, benefiting 80 Catholic Charities' programs serving 160,000 residents across the state.

Two years ago, the Baltimore City Fire Department won the race.

"All I want to do is beat the cops," said Fida. "We can't let them beat the Fire Department." Good-natured ribbing and competition abound in this race - fueled by the fact that 16 companies have competed in all of the races since the program began in 1998.

Patti Sterling, director of community relations for Catholic Charities and 2006 race coordinator, explains why dragon boat racing is such a fitting event for fundraising.

"A number of years ago, our executive director, Hal Smith, saw the dragon boats racing in Hong Kong. They were such a beautiful example of teamwork, harmony," she said.

Several years later, when it came time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Catholic Charities, the dragon boat seemed a perfect metaphor for the work of the organization: a small crew, representative of a larger organization, working in sync for the benefit of all.

"Catholic Charities has around 2,000 employees," she said. "We rely on the thousands of volunteers who work with us each and every year." Catholic Charities administers programs addressing a variety of issues, from homelessness and poverty to child abuse prevention and senior citizen housing.

To participate in the race, a corporation or organization sponsors a boat and chooses a donor level: Platinum sponsors donate $50,000; Gold, $25,000; Silver, $12,500; and Bronze, $6,250. Next, the sponsor assembles a team, which practices at least once a week for eight weeks on the dragon boats Catholic Charities provides.

The boat crew is composed of 20 paddlers who power the craft, eight of whom are required to be women; a "steerer" who handles navigation; and a "drummer" who marks the pace set by the front two paddlers. In addition to the race, sponsors compete in three areas: the "fight song," the decoration of the drummer's hat and tent decorating.

Sponsors also are assigned to partner with one of Catholic Charities' organizations, learning firsthand about the kinds of needs here in Maryland.

Luis Bazan, 39, works for Verizon Communications and moved to Columbia from New York about four months ago. (Note: The author's husband is a member of the Verizon team.) Though he enjoys all sports, Bazan said, "I'd never done anything like this before."

The Verizon team is assigned to practice Wednesday nights, launching from the Baltimore Marine Center in Canton. "You have to sustain a heavy cardio pace for a long time," he said of the practices. "The whole process of practicing is fun. It doesn't matter what job you have in the company - it's one boat, we're all teammates."

A few weeks ago, their boat capsized - twice - during a practice session. The dragon boats are narrow - 45 inches wide and 41 feet long.

"It doesn't take much to tip over," said Bazan. "We were first making sure everyone was there, but then we were laughing, saying we had to remember to get our group hepatitis shot."

Fellow paddler and Ellicott City resident Eric Jensen, 33, said, "I think it's actually good. And after you sink a boat twice, the experts come out."

Catholic Charities provides professional coaching by Mark Bailey, who is present at every practice, along with his cadre of dragon boat racers who advise on matters of technique.

Mike Cihak, 57, of Ellicott City is a paddler on the M&T Bank dragon boat. "I'm the old man of the team," he said. "This year, we're taking a different tack - concentrating on technique rather than speed early on," he said. "But we've actually improved our speed in doing so, so I guess that's the right tack."

M&T Bank's charity is the Cherry Hill Senior Center. "We threw a Mardi Gras party for them, and some folks have been doing some painting over at the center," he said.

Ellicott City resident Lisa Olsen, 39, was the Harkins Builders' drummer for the past three races. This year, she is "cruise director," a liaison between Harkins and its partner charity, Villa Maria School, which provides education and treatment for emotionally disturbed children between the ages of 3 and 14.

"It's really grown," said Olsen, of the partnership. "This year, the kids are helping us decorate our tent and our drummer's hat."

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