On Sunday, June 8, 2008, thirty-two teams of paddlers from greater Boston, New York, and as far away as Canada, raced down the Charles River at the annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival. Despite the blistering heat, the MIT Eager Beavers, sponsored by United Commercial Bank and the MIT Chinese Students and Scholars Association, paddled to victory, winning the gold medal in the festival’s recreational division.
The day-long festival, held between the Weeks and Magazine Street bridges, consisted of a series of 500-meter races to determine rankings in the club, corporate and recreational divisions. In their second year of racing and with only six practices behind them in the 2008 season, MIT arrived with little experience but plenty of spirit. The Eager Beavers consisted of drummer Yuhua Hu PhD ’08, whose job was to provide instructions and motivation to the crew; steerer Steve Lin, who was responsible for the boat’s course; and paddlers Tanguy Chau G, Xiangqiang Chu, Emily Craparo PhD ’08, Wenjun Ge G, Carol Huang, Dazhi Liu G, Kesheng Liu, Tiejun Meng, Lixin Qin, Jinbo Wang G, Kailiang Wu G, Ning Wu G, Sa Xiao G, Qiong Yang G, Weijia Zhang, Xinying Grace Zheng G, and Haining Zheng G.
The team began its weekend with time trials on Saturday, June 7, in which the team showed both its inexperience and its promise: in the first heat, the team floundered and posted a time of 3:08.84, well above their goal time of three minutes. However, the team rallied in the second heat, posting a time of 2:52.28.
The team’s mediocre performance in the time trials resulted in a relatively poor starting position in Sunday’s races. However, the low seeding enabled the Eager Beavers to capture early victories against slower teams, bolstering their confidence. As the team advanced in competition, drummer Hu provided words of motivation both on and off the water, and each of the team’s races was faster than the last. The day culminated with a close race against the Descendants of the Dragon (from the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association and the New England Chinese Youth Summer Camp) in which MIT achieved a time of 2:43.85, edging the Descendants of the Dragon’s time of 2:44.30 and clinching the gold medal.
Zheng recounted the final moments of the last race: “At the end of race, I was really tired and could hardly lift my left hand, but I knew we had to win. I could not help shouting out ‘Go! Go! Go!’ … Immediately I heard guys in front of me shouting out continuously too. At that moment I really felt good, and I knew I was in a great team which I will be proud of forever.”
Ning Wu echoed Zheng’s spirit and expressed optimism for the future of the young team. “I think we are a really amazing team … We actually had only very few times of practice … I believe we can do better next year!”
Dragon boat races are traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (usually falling in June). The races originate from ancient China, where in 278 B.C. the famous poet Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into a river to protest the government corruption that lead to the invasion and devastation of his home state of Chu by the neighboring Qin state. Locals rushed out on the water and raced in their fishing boats in a vain attempt to rescue him. To commemorate this event, dragon boat races are held on the day of Qu Yuan’s death to honor his memory, and zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in leaves) is thrown into the river to prevent fish from devouring the poet’s body.
Dragon boat racing is practiced at a competitive level in 62 countries, 13 fewer countries than necessary for consideration for inclusion in Olympic Games. Dragon boats were used in the 2008 Summer Olympic torch relay for the first time to carry the torchbearer in sections of the relay.