Team Spirit Sinks In, And That's Not All

Edward Smith, left, chief of the Zulu Warriors, leads his rugby-playing rowers in a cheer before their heat in the fourth annual dragon boat races on the Potomac. The races were halted by rain and should continue today.
Edward Smith, left, chief of the Zulu Warriors, leads his rugby-playing rowers in a cheer before their heat in the fourth annual dragon boat races on the Potomac. The races were halted by rain and should continue today. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

The team showed up wearing oversized curly blond wigs and wrapped in toga-like white sheets. One member added thick gold sunglasses and fake sideburns to evoke Elvis Presley, the Las Vegas version.

But no one should have been fooled by the antics of the West Potomac Zulu Warriors. They arrived at yesterday's dragon boat races on the Potomac River with every intention of going away with a trophy in a 250-meter race.

"Nobody takes a clown seriously until we kick their butts," said Bill Evans, 42, of Fairfax County. He's the Elvis impersonator, and is an insurance adjuster when he isn't trying to win boat races.

More than 1,000 paddlers attended the fourth year of the competition. It featured 52 teams racing between the Kennedy Center and the Thompson Boat Center, including one that flew in from Asia.

"Very beautiful," said Ting-Ting Lee, 22, as she took in her first view of the Potomac after traveling 18 hours on a plane from Taiwan.

A sport that originated in China about 2,400 years ago, dragon boat racing is similar to crew. Each 45-foot-long boat, the front of which is adorned by a dragon's head, holds 20 paddlers, a steerer and a drummer who pounds the rhythm for the rowers.

"It's all about synchronization," said Adam Elkassem, 32, a systems manager from Columbia and a member of Virtual Dragons, the team representing the University of Maryland University College. "It teaches you discipline, to take yourself out of being part of a big thing and being part of a small thing."

Organizers of the event, which was interrupted by rain yesterday afternoon and will continue today, say the competition is growing in popularity. The 52 teams paddling this year were 10 more than four years ago.

"It is my hope that it will be a perennial event, like the Cherry Blossom Festival," said Robert Malson, president of the District of Columbia Hospital Association, who hosted an opening ceremony of Chinese drumming and dancing.

The races celebrate Chu Yuan, a poet and politician who, according to Chinese lore, committed suicide in 278 B.C. by drowning in a river after his home state was taken over by disloyal forces. Villagers searched for him in long boats, beating drums and throwing rice dumplings in the water to fend off fish that they feared would eat his body. The Dragon Boat Festival is one of China's most important.

At yesterday's competition, there were no rice dumplings, but the drums and the long boats were there.

Each race featured four teams, which left hundreds of paddlers to wait their turn sprawled out on the grassy banks of the Potomac across from the Watergate apartment complex. Some passed the time napping or listening to iPods.


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