Two of the youngest members of MiraBay's Leviathans Dragon Boat Racing Team are making waves as they prepare to race with Team U.S.A. in the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships.
Natalee Hoover, 16, and Samantha Norstrem, 14, raced their way onto teams that will compete at the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships from Aug. 19-23 in Welland, Ontario, Canada. Natalee will compete with the USA Under-18 rowers and Samantha will compete on the Under-16 national team.
Both three-year veterans were turned on to the sport by their fathers and grew to love dragon boat racing for different reasons.
"It's a very relaxing sport for me," Natalee said. "I can just kind of clear my head for an hour and go into a stress-free zone."
Samantha, however, appreciates the intensity of the sport, gesturing rowing with widened eyes as she speaks about it.
"I love the force, I love the races, I love the adrenaline rush," Samantha said. "I love when you're in the middle of a race and the people behind you are yelling at you to paddle harder and to get your head in the boat.
"I just love pushing myself mentally."
To qualify for a spot on the national teams, Natalee and Samantha trained together for months, improving their times and physical strength while also maintaining academics. After school ended for the summer, both intensified their training..
"I had a little bit of shock because we started training so hard right as school got out," said Samantha, an incoming Lennard High School freshman. "I was just thinking that last week I could eat cake, but this week I can't eat cake."
Qualifying consisted of local time trials, data analytics of their rowing patterns and video recordings of their rowing, which were reviewed by a panel of Team USA coaches, including David Nelson, youth coach of the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Club.
"They had to make sure we blended well with the team," Samantha said. "The other members are coming from all over the country, so we don't get to practice with them all the time."
The ambitious teenagers are excited to meet their teammates, although neither Natalee or Samantha will have many chances to perfect the chemistry with their team.
"We'll have two practices in Canada together when we get there," said Natalee, an East Bay High School junior. "Those practice will be really important since that's all we'll have."
Aside from the physical challenges, monetary and logistic challenges also presented hurdles on their way to Ontario.
"None of it's paid for, so there are admin fees, race fees, you have to pay for uniform and travel," said Ed Norstrem, Samantha's father and co-founder and coach of the Leviathans. "There were so many administrative things that weren't easy to deal with, but we did."
With the help of the MiraBay community and various fundraisers, the two were able to raise enough money to get to Canada for the competitions.
Natalee and Samantha both say that their friends, although proud of them, didn't quite know the prestige of being part of the national youth dragon boat team, so they each take any opportunity to spread the word of the sport.
"It's fun when friends ask you to go somewhere and you say, 'I can't I have dragon boat practice tonight' and they just look at you like, 'What is that?' " Natalee said. "It makes for a good opportunity to tell people about it, because it isn't a huge sport, especially with people our age."
While Natalee and Samantha look forward to the future of continuing their dragon boat careers, they are focused on the races in Canada.
"I just don't want to come back empty-handed," Natalee said .
"If I'm in it, I might as well push all the way," Samantha added .
Contact Kelsey Sunderland at [email protected]