Legend has it that more than 2,000 years ago, Chu Yuan, a poet, warrior and loyal aide to a Chinese emperor, was banished after the ruler died. Chu Yuan could not win favor in the new court, so one day, in despair, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River. When his devoted followers learned of his death, they rushed to their boats and searched for his body, beating their paddles on the water and banging drums and gongs to frighten the fish and evil creatures away.
That incident launched the watery sport of dragon-boat racing, which has since gone global. And while Sloan Lake isn't exactly a Chinese river, it was a fitting setting for Colorado's inaugural dragon-boat races, which drew more than 15,000 spectators last summer. Organizers from Denver's Asian community are expecting close to 25,000 people at this year's Colorado Dragon Boat Festival on August 18.
The day's main events are the races -- one-on-one contests that usually last less than a minute -- to honor Yuan's spirit. But before that, Buddhist monks must rouse the mythic creatures with the "Awakening of the Dragon" ceremony. "Dragons are spirits, so the monks dot the [boats'] eyelids to bring them to life," explains Gil Asakawa, one of the festival's organizers. "It's very moving and symbolic." In Asian culture, the dragon is a symbol of nobility, dignity and power.
There will be 32 teams participating -- twice as many as last year. Each team has eighteen paddlers, a drummer to synchronize the strokes and keep time, and one flag-catcher to hang off the bow and capture the flag at the finish line of the 250-meter course.
"Last year there was a photo finish," says Asakawa. "We had to do an instant replay. Good thing there were a bunch of people videotaping on the shore."
Members of the Colorado Mongolian Project team, which won the first victory cup, are training hard to protect their title.
"Last year we had no idea how to participate. We didn't even know how to put on the life jackets," says the coach, Altbish Dashzeveg. "This year we know more what to do. We need more fit people." Dashzeveg, who is dieting to get his weight down, moved to Denver from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, almost two years ago. He hadn't raced before.
The four forty-foot dragon boats -- their ends carved and painted to resemble a dragon's head and tail -- are supplied by the American Dragon Boat Association, an arm of the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation, which organizes races nationwide. According to Dubuque's Gary Carsten, president of the USDBF, there are about 500 competitive dragon-boat teams around the country.
"It's a lot bigger that you might think," says Carsten. "We eventually want to bring this to the Olympic Games."
To honor other Asian traditions, the day also features cultural performances such as Chinese lion dancing and Japanese taiko drumming, as well as an Asian marketplace with food and crafts. Back out on the water, Dashzeveg will probably be yelling orders at his teammates, whom he calls soldiers. "It has to be like a military operation to get everybody to row at the exact same time," he says determinedly. "We will hopefully defend our championship."