TAMPA — Twenty men and women sit in a boat with painted purple scales, paddling in synch on the Seddon Channel. A drummer on board the dragon boat sets the pace and a sweep guides the boat with an oar.
World-caliber dragon boat racing has arrived in Tampa.
Opening ceremonies are planned for tonight, and the competition continues through Sunday.
About 2,000 men and women of all ages have traveled from across the globe to compete in the International Dragon Boat Federation's 10th World Dragon Boat Racing Championships. They come from China, the Philippines, Germany, Trinidad and Tobago, Russia and Japan. In total, 17 nations are represented.
At least eight of those competitors are from the Tampa Bay area.
They toughed it out through time trials and traveled across the country to practice, but now they say they're ready to paddle with America's best dragon boat racers.
The world event brings together two Tampa Bay "arch rivals" — the TECO Energy Team and the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Club, who have members competing for the United States.
"Without each other, we would never get better," said Pam Korotky, 58, a member of the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Club.
The two teams face off regularly at competitions.
Recently, though, they joined forces. Every Monday the TECO team has been hosting joint practices so that the world competitors in Tampa could practice together.
"That is a very rigorous practice," said Phil Barringer, 57, who is on the TECO corporate team.
The approximately 2,000 competitors, and the family and friends who travel with them, should provide an economic boost to downtown Tampa, said Paul Catoe, president of Tampa Bay and Company. He predicted a bump of $2 million to $5 million.
"That could go up, that could go down, depending on how long they stay. That's just a guesstimate," he said.
The world championship features an array of competitions, varying in length from 200 meters to 2,000 meters. The races are divided by age group and into open, women's and mixed teams.
There's a special tier of competition called "premier," which is open to all ages. The Nations Cup is awarded to a country based on the performance of its premier boats.
"The premier is the big one," said Bob McNamara, the United States' head coach. "That's where you put your best paddlers, no matter what age they are."
China won the Nations Cup in 2009 in Prague and the U.S. team won it in Sydney in 2007.
"China's the defending champion and they're here. They'll be the odds on favorite," he said. "The USA will have a strong team from top to bottom. The team has a lot of experienced paddlers."
Dan Harris, 27, from Tampa was an alternate in 2009 in Prague. Now he's on the premier team.
Harris noted the muscular athletes exercising along the water. A German team did pushups nearby.
He said, "A lot of the best paddlers are thin, fit and long armed" — a description not far off his own physique.
Barringer saw the sport a little differently. Unlike rowers, dragon boat racers use a paddle.
"It's a little bit more like Vikings — a little bit more brute force," he said. "It's less refined than rowing. That fits my nature: I'm more of a physical muscle kind of person."
Ending practice Monday, the women's coaches delivered a brief pep talk to the sweat-drenched team.
"We all know we have great athletes here. Take what we've given you, take it to heart and apply it," said assistant coach Rena Horcajo. "It's a war. It's a battle out there."
Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or email@example.com.