Logo: University of Southern California

Racing to the Beat of a Dragon's Heart

Engineering students participate in a traditional Chinese sport
By: Hai Vu
December 09, 2014 —
USC DB 2 (1)
 Photo courtesy of USC Dragon Boat

Accompanied by the echoes of the drums which symbolizes a dragon’s heart beat, hundreds of people gather to watch as boats adorned with dragon heads and beautifully painted scales race to the finish line. Quicky, but orderly, the competitors use their paddles as a sharp blade to cut through the seafoam green water.

In perfect synchronization, the team is like a well oiled machine created specifically for one goal — to win the race. The sport has been around for hundreds of years in China, but thanks to globalization, it has found itself in our very own backyard.

Since 2005, the University of Southern California’s Dragon Boat team has competed against different colleges in a test of stamina, endurance and teamwork. It is the competitive sport of paddling that requires perfect synchronization and form. Dragon Boat teams from all around California meet five times a year to race in boats adorned with decorations that resemble a dragon. The race is often 250 to 1,000 meters long and requires at least 20 paddlers, one caller and one steersman. With around 30 to 40 members, USC Dragon Boat competes against teams from the University of California Los Angeles, the University of California Irvine, the University of California Riverside, the University of California San Diego, the University of California Santa Cruz, Stanford and the University of California Berkeley.

Photo courtesy of USC Dragon Boat

The USC Dragon Boat team is composed primarily of engineers, including captain Harrison Lee. Lee is currently a senior studying biomedical engineering. He joined the team his freshman year and has since then paddled all around the world for various teams, including the Killer Guppies, one of the first competitive dragon boat teams in California.

Photo courtesy of USC Dragon Boat
Lee explains, “Dragon Boat is a team sport, and every member makes a significant contribution to determining the team's success.” Along with the coaching staff who all have extensive experience paddling for different teams from around the world, Lee develops training drills that focus on improving each individual’s strength. As captain, Lee must make sure the drills are effective, and as an engineer, he modifies ineffective drills and optimizes the athletes’ performance.

Every weekend, the USC Dragon Boat team travels to Long Beach for three-hour practices in rented boats. The team's physical dexterity and communication skills are tested throughout the entire race. With the help of the caller who monitors the team’s timing and form, each paddler must be in sync with the rest of the team in order for the boat to glide effectively across the water while the steersman helps the team maneuver in a straight line. As Alyssa Naritoku, a sophomore in biomedical engineering, puts it, “The most important factor is that the boat is only as strong as the weakest paddler. Because if one paddler is slightly off in the stroke, that could cause the boat to slow down.”

Two weeks ago, USC Dragon Boat brought home the bronze medal for the B division of the College Cup. In total, USC Dragon Boat has won one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal this season. They will be on a short break until spring of 2015, when our Dragon Boat engineering experts will be back to fight on!