The margin of victory couldn't have been much smaller, but the streak keeps getting longer.
Pemberton's Laoyam Eagles extended their incredible win streak at the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver last weekend, claiming a 16th consecutive Junior A triumph by a hair over their closest rivals on Sunday, June 22.
Many of the previous 15 titles came without much of a fight from the rest of the field, but this year, the Eagles had their hands full with a challenge from the Eric Hamber Secondary School team, now racing as the False Creek Racing Canoe Club Eternal Dragon.
The Eagles completed the 500-metre race in one minute, 56.590 seconds, beating the Eternal Dragon crew to the False Creek finish line by just .310 seconds.
"That made it feel like we earned it a lot more, rather than winning by three boat lengths like last year," said Lauren Phare, part of the winning Eagles team for the third year in a row.
The Eternal Dragon looked like the team to beat for much of the weekend, posting the fastest junior times during qualifiers and heats held on Saturday. When the two crews met up in the final, Pemberton's 22-person co-ed squad rocketed out to an early lead, but head coach Hugh Fisher watched as the Eric Hamber team started closing the gap.
"At the three-quarter mark, (the lead) was down to a quarter-boat, and you could just see Hamber pulling up every stroke, inch by inch," said Fisher. "I ran along the course watching it and just could not tell (who won)."
The gap was so narrow at the finish line that the race was called on a photo finish, and the Eagles were able to celebrate after a nervous delay.
"They had strong heads on their shoulders this year," said Fisher. "It was just a super strong performance. They did what they needed to do when they needed to do it."
With the way the Eternal Dragon crew looked in its races through the weekend, it might have been fair to call the Eagles the underdogs in Sunday's final. But the Eagles weren't going to be satisfied with second.
"Nobody wants to lose," said Phare. "One of the biggest motivators was not wanting to come home and tell the people of Pemberton... that you're the one that ended the streak."
Paddler Eldon Finck, who returned to the Eagles this year after a couple of seasons away, said it felt special to add another victory to a run that has become a rallying point for the community.
"I feel like this winning streak and this dragon boat team is the pride and joy of Pemberton," he said. "It brings people together... and once we're all in the boat, it brings this camaraderie together. That connection between everyone and that desire to continue to be champions, it keeps everyone going and motivated."
Also on this year's Eagles team were steersperson Bailey Thomson, drummer Krista Simpson, and paddlers Dayna Goochey, Isabel Peters, Shelby Goochey, Ashley LeBlanc, Liam Miller, Wesley Finck, Will Bradner, Sam Turrin, Dalton Pehonta, Anthony Liakakos, Sara MacLeod, Hannah Johansson, Anne Linklater, Simon Walsh, Alex McKay, Riel Tetreault, Ethan Hess and Spence Barker.
More than a dozen of those team members won't be eligible to come back to junior racing next year, but as usual, the Pemberton Canoe Association has another crop of young talent ready to fill key roles on the Eagles crew. The younger Laoyam Falcons raced to a first-place finish in the Junior B final, while the elementary-aged Laoyam Ospreys placed fourth in the Junior C final.
"I'm liking what I'm seeing coming up," said Phare, who also coaches some of the club's younger athletes. "There are a lot of very technically strong kids, although we do need a couple more strong boys.
"Girls can always pick it up, but generally what makes a dragon boat team good is big boys, so we're trying to recruit."
The Pemberton Hens & Chicks reached the Women's A Competitive final and placed fifth at the festival. Meanwhile, the Pemberton Huge Fish — featuring several male members of the Eagles — raced the Open Championship just minutes after the Junior A final and managed a sixth-place finish.
The Pemberton Bald Eagles co-ed senior team made it through to the Mixed B Competitive final, finishing seventh.
The Bald Eagles also entered the 2,000-metre Guts and Glory race, recording the 12th-fastest time among the 18 crews competing.
Many of the Pemberton club's paddlers will make the switch over to outrigger canoe racing in the coming weeks, while a handful of junior-aged athletes from the Spud Valley are also due to compete in the B.C. Summer Games in Nanaimo next month.
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