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Eagles pull out championship nail biter

Dragon boaters come from behind to take ninth consecutive high school title

By Andrew Mitchell

Students from Pemberton and Mount Currie maintained their paddling dominance at the 2007 Alcan Dragon Boat Festival in False Creek this past weekend, holding off their strongest challenge yet to retain the high school title for the ninth straight year.

“It was literally a photo finish, just 0.24 seconds between our team and the Lincoln Mustangs from San Francisco,” said coach Dr. Hugh Fisher. “The Mustangs have been gunning for the Eagles for five years now, and our guys came out ahead after a really tight race where they came from behind.”

According to Dr. Fisher, the Layoam Eagles had the best start in the finals, but the stronger Mustangs were two to three metres ahead by the halfway point at 250 metres. The Eagles did a pick-up stroke to close the distance, and managed to pull ahead at the finish.

A team includes 20 paddlers, a steerer and a drummer to keep time. Unlike the Mustangs, where the majority of paddlers were in Grade 12, the Eagles ranged from Grades 8 to 12 and had a few rookie paddlers in the boat. It was enough to get the job done.

“It’s a really good group,” said Dr. Fisher. “We lost some powerful girls last year to graduation, and filled their spots with some girls from our Falcons (development) team from last year, and they really rose to the occasion. We had a few new kids from Grade 8 come on board, including the youngest sister of one of our top paddlers, and all the guys we had were really excited about this year.”

The Eagles were less dominating in the qualifiers, quarter-finals and semi-finals than in the past, and were three seconds back of the Mustangs in the semi-finals. Although it appeared as if the Eagles had met their match, Dr. Fisher said it was helpful to come into a race as the underdog.

“It’s easy to get a little complacent and cocky as a crew that wins all the time, and we definitely weren’t that heading into the finals,” he said. “Our guys were probably faster than last year, but the level of competition was really a lot higher. The Mustangs have been coming to this event since 2001, and gaining on us every year — I think they were third or fourth their first year — and have really been studying us while getting their own program in shape. A lot of other schools have also stepped it up a notch, so we had to be that much better.”

The local development team, the Layoam Falcons, had a solid day by finishing third in the qualifiers. Unfortunately they found themselves beside the Eagles in the final, and were washed out at the start. Their boat then had some control issues to overcome, but still managed to finish fifth.

“For a boat that was virtually all new kids, they did really, really well,” said Dr. Fisher. “You always know the Eagles are going to do well, but your heart is always out there with the Falcons and watching their struggles at this level of competition. We were marveling at how well they were doing.”

Despite the late start to the spring the Pemberton and Mount Currie boats managed to get in about 20 practices before the Alcan festival.

“We paddled a lot in the cold and the rain, and that always has an effect on the team. It makes it hard to come down to early workouts on Sunday morning,” said Dr. Fisher.

“Graduation also makes a difference. We had seven or eight paddlers who were up to their eyeballs in school work, and with graduation and the prom to think about. It all makes a big difference, but the team made a commitment to the team and stuck with it.”

As usual Pemberton and Mount Currie also entered the Bald Eagles team into the competitive men’s club division, which finished fifth in the finals but was bumped back to eighth after the referee assessed a time penalty for a steering infraction. While the Bald Eagles were upset by the ruling it may have worked in the team’s favour in the final 2,000 metre event, where they were started midway in the pack and managed to place second overall out of 18 teams.

“This is the first time that the Bald Eagles was made up of all local guys,” said Dr. Fisher. “Usually we have to recruit a few paddlers from other teams, but this year we actually had spares and a tough decision was who to sit before the big race.”

In addition to the Bald Eagles, Pemberton and Mount Currie fielded one mixed team of high school students and adults, both male and female, that placed fifth in their category. Those races were largely a family affair, said Fisher, who got to race alongside his son.

The local women’s team opted to miss this year’s Alcan races, and compete in regattas this summer.

In addition to racing, the dragon boat team is building a boathouse at One Mile Lake to store their gear, and is just waiting for some wood to start construction. The club is also hosting the Lily Paddle regatta on One Mile Lake on July 28.

One member of the Layoam Eagles has been invited by a Vancouver team to travel to Australia for the world club championships, while other paddlers are looking to take part in outrigger races through the summer. The Eagles will likely race at a regatta in Kelowna at the end of the summer.

For 2008, Fisher is looking into the possibility of sending a team to the world club championships in Malaysia, which he says will take a mass fundraising effort.

“We’re trying to get everybody together and make a decision whether to go to that race, because it will take a lot of time to plan,” said Dr. Fisher.