Sunday, May 27, 2018
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At Tampa's Dragon Boat Races, even the slowest boats have fun

Mary Denise Schobel hopes her team can eke out a win in one of its three races at Saturday's Tampa Bay International Dragon Boat Festival. But she's not willing to bet on it.

Eight weeks before the races at Tampa's annual Asia Fest, Schobel's team, a group of 22 people who signed up through a recreational sports league, met for the first time.

They gathered on a pier and stepped unassuredly into a 38-foot dragon boat. "I don't think we go into to it expecting anything but having fun and getting out there and meeting people," said Schobel, an executive assistant from Clearwater.

A great attitude, considering Tampa Bay Club Sport's Drag'n Booty hasn't won anything in the three years she's been paying to compete.

Even this year, they stand little chance of winning the races that lie ahead — or even qualifying for the championship heat.

Other competitors in Tampa's Dragon Boat Festival train year-round, own their own boats and travel from out of state for a chance at victory.

Even in the face of all that, Tampa Bay Club Sport has managed to gather a ragtag team of people to compete for the past four years, said Chris Giebner, the owner of the adult recreational league company.

"We cater to those people who want to try it out but don't have 25 people who are willing to field a team," Giebner said. "The turnover is high from year to year. It's a group of individuals not known to each other in a competition where experience counts."

Club Sport rents the boat annually, and the festival provides an instructor for the team. Race rules require at least eight women on each of its mixed teams. Corporate teams field the minimum. Drag'n Booty had more than 14.

It's a committed group that works hard, Schobel said. Practice happens every weekend up until race day. The instructor coaches them through the techniques and Schobel said she learns something new every year. "When you're doing it right, it just feels like you're gliding across the water. Do it wrong and you get this jerky back and forth motion," she said.

Returning and being one of the most experienced rowers hasn't translated into success. Last year, TECO's Tan Anou Black won with a championship heat time of 1:44.19, one second slower than its first race. Drag'n Booty's best was 2:13.75.

After qualifiers, teams are regrouped for the semifinals based on time. Schobel said maybe her team her team can dominate the bottom rungs this year. "They go by time, so there is a chance. It's a fat chance but who knows?"

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