Here there be dragons. Or will be, on June 26, when dragon-boat racing comes to Lake Wingra. The inaugural Capital Lakes DragonFest puts Madison on the map among a small but growing number of cities breathing fire into the sport's recent ascent in the upper Midwest. Launched in 2002, the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival now draws scores of teams each summer. Oshkosh and Racine have debuted events of their own in recent years, the latter staging its Great Midwest Dragon Boat Festival on Lake Michigan.
Driven by the ambitions of TeamSurvivor Madison's dragon-boat team, the event here promises a novel experience for participants and spectators alike. But if you want to ride a dragon, jump fast: Registration closes this Saturday, May 15, with final team rosters due June 1, and entries are already taking flight toward the 30-team cap.
TeamSurvivor Madison's president and co-founder, Diane Stojanovich, is a veteran of its dragon-boat team. She and her teammates have been competing since 2003. "When we travel to these festivals," she says, "people are amazed that Madison doesn't have one yet."
Such bewilderment is understandable. The Yahara chain of lakes, local enthusiasm for existing events like Paddle & Portage and the more recent Ride the Drive, this city's reputation as an island of quirk surrounded by reality - such factors ought to provide ideal habitat for long, colorful, ornate dragon boats rooted in Chinese traditions dating back more than 2,000 years, each with the capacity to bear some 20 paddlers.
The debut of Capital Lakes DragonFest holds personal significance for Stojanovich, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1998. Her original prognosis was three to five years. It's now 12 years later, seven or eight since she was last treated, almost as long since she found camaraderie among peers in a dragon boat.
There is sweet symmetry to the establishment of Capital Lakes DragonFest as a means to spotlight and benefit TeamSurvivor Madison's fitness, education and support programs to help women with cancer thrive as well as survive. It is among those dragon-boat competitions that include a category for teams composed of cancer survivors. Awards will also be presented to the fastest teams in categories including business, education, friends and family, government, health care, nonprofit and survivors and supporters. An award for team spirit is also up for grabs.
WPS Insurance has signed on as the festival's presenting sponsor. The UW-Madison's Carbone Cancer Center and paddlesports retailer Rutabaga are also on board. The American Dragon Boat Association is providing the dragon boats, which will be trailered here from the dragon-boating hotbed of Iowa. Festival organizers will provide paddles and personal flotation devices.
In keeping with contemporary dragon-boat racing standards, each team must include at least eight women during each race. Teams may consist of as few as 16 paddlers or as many as 20, plus three alternates, a drummer to pound out the paddling cadence and a qualified steersperson to keep the dragon boat flying straight and true over the water on a course expected to measure between 300 and 500 meters long. Festival organizers will provide a steersperson for teams unable to muster their own. Participants must be at least 14 years old as of the June 1 roster deadline.
The festival's $600 registration fee may appear steep at first glance, but dividing that number by 16 (the minimum team size) or 24 (the max) brings the per-person rate in line with entry costs for many of the area's running, biking and other competitive events, and includes an event T-shirt for each team member.
How to train your dragon boat team? Stojanovich prefaces her answer by explaining that it's a beginner-friendly sport. "No experience necessary," she says. "If you've been in a canoe or boat, you're halfway there."
Observing one of TeamSurvivor Madison's training sessions (6-8 p.m. Wednesdays behind Rutabaga) may yield insight into the sport's dynamics, Stojanovich adds. The dragon-boat paddling stroke is very different from a canoe stroke, she explains. Seeing it practiced by TeamSurvivor Madison's dragon-boat team may allow onlookers to intuit the distinction from shore.
Would-be participants who are unable to rally a sufficient number of teammates to fill a dragon boat can throw their names into a pool from which teams can be assembled or completed.
Attendance at a practice training session on the eve of the festival is mandatory, Stojanovich notes: "You get to get into the boat and figure out which end of the paddle to use and get at least the particulars, and then you're good to go."
Ready to drive the dragon boat, and breathe a little fire.