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Good Sport

Erik Price

Lisa Kennard (Rachel Elizabeth photo)

Dragon Lady

Ancient sport becomes Pitt researcher’s passion

The rhythmic thud of the drum comes first. Picnickers along the Allegheny River’s banks peer out over the river’s calm surface, a sheet of shimmering glass left behind by the chocolaty currents of winter thaw. The drumbeats sound like the approach of a trotting giant. Through the sun’s glare, a serpentine shape emerges. Children playing by the river’s edge freeze and stare bug-eyed as the creature knifes downriver toward them, its green-fringed head sporting a toothsome grin, its back undulating strangely.

As the beast nears, it becomes apparent this is no river monster sighting. On its back, Lisa Kennard and 19 others wield paddles like synchronized flippers, propelling the strange craft forward to the beat pounded out by the drummer perched on the bow. It’s Saturday morning dragon boat practice.

Kennard, a research associate in the University’s Department of Epidemiology, has taken part in Pittsburgh’s dragon boat racing scene since 2003. Dragon boat racing originated in 278 B.C.E., when legendary Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan committed suicide in the Miluo River to protest the era’s corrupt government. When word spread of Qu Yuan’s actions, the common people rushed into the water in fishing boats to find their esteemed poet. In commemoration of that day, the Chinese race ornately carved dragon boats during the annual Duanwu Festival, typically held in May or June.

Now, dragon boat racing is one of the world’s fastest-growing water sports. Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Rowing Association and Steel City Rowing Club acquired two $10,000 dragon boats in 2002, offering the public a chance to try the ancient sport.

“I just sort of stumbled across it,” explains Kennard. “A friend of mine said, ‘I’m going to do this dragon boat thing. Why don’t you come down?’”

From the first moment her paddle struck water, Kennard was immersed in the sport. She and some other dragon boaters formed the Pittsburgh Paddlefish to practice their skills—and to compete. Mild-mannered on land, Kennard and her teammates breathe fire on the river. Their spirit and year-round training (on specially adapted indoor rowing machines during the winter) helped Kennard and three other Pittsburgh women qualify for the U.S. team at the 2005 International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Berlin, Germany. The team, competing in the Grand Master category for paddlers ages 50 and older, placed second.

Back in familiar waters, Kennard’s crew members pull their paddles through the water, sending the dragon skimming over the reflections of downtown Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers and leaving the intrigued picnickers far behind. The next World Championships are in 2007 in Sydney, Australia, and Kennard hopes to be there.

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