When we arrive at a new venue and begin practice sessions, it’s more than just working a gig. We live in that community while we’re there: we eat at their restaurants, sleep in their hotels, discover their sites if we have time. We get to know people from all walks of life in their community, on their turf and we get to see what local community and corporate teams are made of on race day. They work through a race start and pace with each other after having only one hour-long practice session. It’s fun to watch the teams strategize on race day about their collective timing. We bond with many of these teams, many of whom also raise money for a local charity. Recently, I was reminded why I love this part of coaching, and the community of the sport.

We were in Guntersville, AL managing the Marshall County Habitat for Humanity Dragon Boat Festival. On the last day of practices, I coached the First Baptist Church Albertville team, Different Strokes. We gelled from the start. They immediately got their timing down in practice and clearly wanted to be competitive on race day. My kind of team! More than that, they were genuine people who thoroughly enjoyed the sport and our time together, despite the fact that we almost flipped twice due to weight shifts from strong people in the boat. That certainly also contributed to the uniqueness of the team. It is always nice to see people who are first introduced to dragon boat racing react to it with such zeal. I get attached to a lot of teams I coach. I prepared this team for race day and then we strategized after practice about how they would approach the day.

As we approached the start line before each race on festival day, I gave them a pep talk to make sure they gave the proper effort each time. I didn’t want them to give their very best performance until the last race. All day Different Strokes held the third position and raced like they were behind, because they were. Just before the finals, I learned that one of their church members had died and that his funeral was happening while they were paddling in this event. Their pastor was officiating . During our paddle to the start line on the last race, we had a moment of silence in the boat for their friend and I gave them an elegant pep talk about having no regrets, that racing in a dragon boat and living in general is all about being satisfied  you gave your best. I was worried that I went too far with my talk, and that I should shut up to keep from depressing them about their friend, giving them too much emotion, deeming the talk counterproductive. Finally, I said, “I’m going to shut up now. You know what to do”. They laid a solid foundation on the start line with a great tempo to begin, and then staged a strong finish. Just before we got to the first buoy, a gust of wind started pushing the entire boat toward the buoy. I had to strong arm the oar to drive us away from it. The stunned look on the drummer’s face was priceless. Once I got them straightened out, they surged and found their timing.

Before the closing award ceremonies, I learned Different Strokes won Gold! They had truly put everything into the race. I was so happy for them. It was pure pleasure for me to watch them react at the medal ceremony when it was announced (much to their surprise) that they had won! Some of them had tears in their eyes, and all of them celebrated, sporting big smiles. Upon reflection, I realized this is why I love coaching: Every team has a story and when they put their heart into it so passionately, it shows true character and class, proving hard work pays off in the end.

 Video of the comeback win:

Click Photos to enlarge: