The solution to pandemic stress: Enter the dragon boat


“Tell me,” said my aunt-in-law, appraising me through her rimmed glasses, “how is work these days?”

In a word, exhausting. I had been leading our 30-person Washington, D.C., staff coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection, the inauguration of President Biden, a worldwide pandemic and the ongoing election challenge by the outgoing President Trump. While up late editing one night, I couldn’t immediately decide whether to put the “a” or “o” in U.S. Capitol.

I rattled off the list of terrible things: A staffer got trapped in the Capitol during the insurrection, I had to get bulletproof gear for my reporters covering the inauguration, and all that came along with being a pioneering new boss.

The week of the 2020 presidential election, I had been promoted to Washington bureau chief for The Times, the first person of color to have that job and only the second woman since The Times began operating an office in Washington since at least the 1940s.

The challenges, and responsibilities, were not lost on me.

My aunt listened as we enjoyed a round of margaritas, turned pink with a splash of pomegranate juice, at her lakeside house in Georgia. It was the Fourth of July holiday and a long overdue break from the news.

She looked into her glass tumbler and with a breathless Southern accent said: “I think you should get back to dragon-boating.”

The DC Dragon Boat Club stretch before practice.

Kimbriell Kelly, center, and the DC Dragon Boat Club stretch before practice.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

It struck me that in not addressing the problem, she had, in fact, addressed the problem through the wisdom that might have been assumed from the white hairs framing her face.

Like so many of us during the pandemic, I didn’t have a work problem. I had a life problem.

The solution would be dragon boats. And they would send me on an improbable quest.

Dragon boats are long, narrow watercraft powered by paddlers, typically seating 20, but sometimes 10. It’s an ancient Chinese sport, and teammates told me it’s the oldest team sport on record, though I was never able to confirm that.

A drummer helps keeps the pace and a steerer keeps the boat on course. And, yes, the bow features the head of a dragon.

When my aunt planted that seed, it had been years since I had diligently trained in a dragon boat. I had stopped when I was 40 after dragon-boat team drama, which included one memorable competition in Florida, where a race ended with one inebriated teammate huddled over a toilet.

Work had also gotten busy and a friend complained that my excitement for dragon-boating on social media left the impression I was doing more boating than working.

So I quit.

But now here I was, six years later, in the middle of a pandemic, an insurrection and in desperate need of doing more to bring me peace.

I returned from the vacation — ironically, Independence Day — and dragged myself to the dock, just a few blocks from my house. Just to watch. It was Aug. 23, 2021, and a 20-person dragon boat cruised by, trailing a small wake as it headed toward the orange sunset.

Coach Troy Pham, left in red, chats with Vu Deo during practice.

Coach Troy Pham, left in red, chats with Vu Deo during practice.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

I didn’t recognize anyone. All of my friends had gone, moved to New Jersey, Ohio and Southern California. Another to Germany. One had even started a successful dragon-boat club in Pennsylvania. The only person I recognized was the coach standing at the bow shouting commands that carried on the wind toward me.

I noticed one of the paddlers wearing a team racing jersey, and I began reminiscing about the time that I had been proud to wear my jersey on race day, American flag on one shoulder and the performance fit hugging my back and arm muscles. Now all of my uniforms were packed in plastic containers beneath my bed. They had the names of teams I had competed with: The First Ladies. UMUC. Volksdragon. And the team that I won the most medals with, The Dead Presidents. (Such is Washington humor.)

I had been introduced to dragon-boating and the D.C. Dragon Boat Club by a friend when I moved to Washington in 2012. Soon I was leaving work to get to weeknight practices, and arriving early for weekend ones.

A friend made the U.S. National team competing in Hungary and suggested I make the trip in a few weeks to watch.

When I finally ended up in the town of Szeged after backpacking around Europe, I sat in the stands and watched as the dragon-boaters raced in the 90-plus degree heat. I remember hearing the different languages spoken around me and feeling disconnected until I heard a familiar song, the U.S. national anthem, and watched an excited crew walk across the medal stand.

One day, I thought, that could be me.

When I was competing, we were the best in the Eastern region, racking up a championship title in 2014 at the Eastern Regional Dragon Boat Assn. But that’s as far as I had gotten.

Kelly, center, and the DC Dragon Boat Club practice in the Washington Channel.

Kelly, center, and the DC Dragon Boat Club practice in the Washington Channel.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Such memories came over me the August day I had watched my former team practice. I walked home and found news was waiting for me: After nearly 20 years at war, the U.S. was pulling troops out of Afghanistan.

Our Washington office was responsible for providing updates from the White House, Defense Department and State Department.

I began to question whether my life would ever slow down. But I remembered what my aunt had said.

The next weekend, on Aug. 28, I went back to the dock. This time, I dressed to get in the boat.

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I had been away so long that I couldn’t remember what I needed to bring, I grabbed my old paddle and sunglasses and wore a white sun visor and jersey. I took selfies at 9:05 a.m. as I walked down the street, smiling along the way. I texted them to my husband as proof that I had gone.

As I arrived at the dock, I caught a glimpse of my shadow in the wooden planks and took an artistic photo. I could make out the contours of two buns on each side of my head and the paddle almost as long as my body, which people often mistook for a guitar.

By the end of practice, someone had taken a picture of me. I was hunched over in the boat, gasping for air. I had forgotten the most basic thing, to bring water. The sun glistened against my brown skin. I also had forgotten sunblock.

But I had made it. I texted a selfie to my husband, sister-in-law and, of course, aunt.

Back at work, the president was at Camp David and had told reporters that the Taliban were unlikely to take Afghanistan. But the situation quickly unraveled and the U.S. scrambled to get the Americans and troops out of the country.

The DC Dragon Boat Club practices in the Washington Channel.

Steerer Josh Rubinstein guides the team during practice.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

As the tension rose, I headed to the water. On Sept. 4, I sent another text: “I got to dragon boat four times this week!”

My aunt responded: “So glad you are back into this sport!!! It suits you so well!!!”

I replied: “Me, too! Thanks for the push.”

A heart emoji emerged.

I had returned so late in the season that there was only a couple of major races left, among them Nationals, the biggest stage our local team had ever competed on. And I wasn’t going to be part of it. I cried. I didn’t initially know why; it wasn’t like I had tried to make the team. I sat with that feeling, trying to identify it.

I thought about six years’ worth of dragon-boating potential that I had cast aside. And for what? Yes, I had won a Pulitzer. And been named a Pulitzer finalist for another project. But that was all work. What had I done outside of work for happiness?

Instead of sulking, I decided I could support the team when its races were live streamed on Oct. 2. I knew that my teammates might like getting screenshots of themselves crossing the finish line. That I could do.

They medaled, earning a seat at the Club Crew World Championships in 2022 to compete against teams from around the globe, including Hungary, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, India, Britain and Canada.

The team stretches before practice.

Kenny Nguyen and the team stretch before practice.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The DC Dragon Boat Club practices in the Washington Channel.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

After returning to Washington, our coaches announced that for the Worlds, they were going to seat a new crew through tryouts. While it would be tough for women to make the boat, it was announced there might be room for one or two.

I grabbed a file folder and in large black permanent marker wrote “Make the seat.” I bought what I called my “Dragon-boat journal” and logged my workouts. I entered my water time and weight training in a Google spreadsheet maintained by the coaches. I purchased workout shorts by the batch.

I treated myself to a special gift: custom red, white and blue water shoes with the name of the World competition and 2022 embroidered on the straps.

I had seven months to prepare for tryouts.

On Oct. 30 and at 9:19 a.m. I asked my husband to take a photo to document the start. I wore a fluorescent pink tank top that read: “Dragon Boat: Do you have the backbone for it?”

I signed up for two “dragon boat camps” the following spring. I watched YouTube videos to correct my weightlifting form.

I trained on vacation, including at the lake house, crossing the hilly property with dumbbells in my hands and a kettlebell stuffed into a duffle bag on my back. I planked on the lake shore and did box jumps onto the deck steps.

One day, my aunt grabbed a dumbbell and jerked her elbow back with force. Is this how you do it? she asked.

But then came a surprise email from the coaches: There would be a paddle test the morning after we returned from the Thanksgiving vacation, the first of several to eliminate candidates.

The DC Dragon Boat Club practices in the Washington Channel.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

I panicked. While I had been diligently working out, I had also been vacationing for nearly three weeks with my aunt, the kind of relative you greet at their vehicle because they arrive with groceries and home-cooked meals to unload. A pecan pie. Fresh biscuits. Salty ham with red-eye gravy. I had gained 10 lbs.

I also had not taken a paddle test in six years. Imagine a rowing machine, but with a paddle attached, pulling as hard on it as you can for 3 minutes. I emailed my coach to try to get out of it, saying I would not return to D.C. until late Saturday:

“I just saw that there is testing first thing Sunday morning. I signed up, but am wondering if there is another day or time I can do this considering I’ll be getting back so late on Saturday.”

He responded: “No worries if you can’t make it tomorrow. I understand if you will be tired.”

I had a lot of time to think on that nine-hour ride home from Georgia. That email represented my first real test, and I had failed. If I was going to take this task of getting to Worlds seriously, I had to be committed. I decided to do the test.

I arrived at the gym early and grudgingly hopped on the scale for the weigh-in. At 9:16 a.m., I walked past other hopefuls to the rowing machine — I hadn’t had a test in years — and grabbed the paddle. My teammates began laughing and told me I was holding it wrong.

I was embarrassed and laughed along with them, telling the crowd, “Whew, I’m done!”

“That’s too funny,” the head coach said.

The DC Dragon Boat Club practices in the Washington Channel.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Another coach told me not to worry, that this was just a baseline test.

Afterward, when back at home, I took to my journal and wrote down what things I needed to do for the next time, among them “cut 10 lbs.”

But more important, I realized that I had to change my lifestyle.

I redesigned my home gym, installing horse stall mats, and bought a squat rack. I signed up for a New Year’s day rowing machine half-marathon. I calibrated my watch to track my sleep.

Then there was diet. A high-protein diet replaced simple carbs. I gave up alcohol — even the pink margaritas.

In all, I would train more than 135 hours.

By the next test I was posting scores that matched at least one of the men. On future tests, some of my scores were better.

Spring arrived and while attending the dragon boat camps in Georgia and Florida, I ended up scoring among the top 10 women.

The DC Dragon Boat Club practices in the Washington Channel.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The coaches announced that we’d be getting on the water to do the final test on May 2. Two weeks later, the team would be announced. But in early April I tested positive for COVID-19.

I was likely exposed at a dinner related to work. The dinner had made news as a super-spreader event in Washington that also infected members of Congress and Biden’s Cabinet.

Club rules prevented teammates from returning to practice until they had a negative test. Who could predict when I could return? I had very mild symptoms, so I continued to work out at home.

The next day a package was waiting for me on my doorstep. It was my custom-made red, white and blue water shoes. I burst into tears.

I began researching ways to clear my lungs. I drank hot lemon water, munched on raw garlic. I took midday naps to try to heal faster. Each day I tested, each day the same verdict: positive.

Then on Friday, April 15, I set the microwave timer for 15 minutes and waited for the results. Into my cell phone I recorded my thoughts: “Today I tested and after 8 days, I finally tested negative! I’m excited! I just went online and booked a flight to dragon boat camp — it starts on Sunday.”

I tossed the test in a plastic food storage bag and dated it so that I’d always remember.

The next day, I headed to my first practice on the water since COVID and left my house at 5:40 a.m. wearing my new water shoes. I typed a memo on my phone: “First day back: Played the tune from Rocky in my head as I put my red, white and blue bandana on at 5:15 a.m. Realized it’s the first early morning practice I’ve had in six years.”

Two weeks later, on the afternoon of May 8, an email arrived in my inbox as I returned from a trip to Chicago: “We (Karen, Troy, & myself), want to congratulate you on making the DC Dragon Boat Club roster for the upcoming Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) in July.”

I couldn’t wait to share the news and texted my aunt. She quickly replied: “I AM SO HAPPY FOR YOU, AND HAVE I TOLD YOU HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU!!!!???”

“Your love and support means the world to me!!!”

Next week the Club Crew World Championship will begin in Sarasota. I will be there, with my team, wearing my red, white and blue shoes. And when I next see my aunt, I will thank her for the inspiration — every family needs someone like her, no? — and perhaps have a piece of pecan pie.

The DC Dragon Boat Club practices in the Washington Channel.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)



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