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You Are Special Being Out There (Originally Published January 21, 2009)

I can't resist writing about a recent topic on the Dragon Boat forum entitled, "Why are there so many geeks in Dragon Boating?" It's the valuing of the different canoeing activities I choose to write about. From time to time on the forum, or in conversations at festivals and at dragon boat and canoe clubs, I see people try to assign more or less value to their particular canoe discipline. This is a new experience for me in sport. I am lucky. I came up through flatwater canoeing in an era where you could still do other sports. My friends would go to the canoe club in July and August, and play other sports the rest of the time. Very few people trained more than two months a year in canoeing. You name the sport, I did it - most of the time in competitive leagues or on school teams. In the other sports, it was more like a club. If you are a runner, you are a runner. Speed doesn't matter. Improvement does. You will frequently hear from runners, "so and so did really well, they pb'd at the meet yesterday." Any track club has people of all ages, shapes and sizes. In every track club I've ever been in, beginners and outsiders have been welcomed and admired for being brave enough to show up. Even on my university team, there was never a hierarchy. And the sprinters didn't put down the shot putters because there was more or less value in throwing because it was easier/harder to do. In karate, newcomers are greeted with such fervent zeal that it's difficult to put into words. That's because anyone who has any experience at all in karate knows how lost they felt when they first walked into a dojo. It's very intimidating for an adult, and for most people there is no sport experience you can draw upon. Karate people even go out of their way to respect other styles of karate. My style is a traditional okinawan style - old school, hardcore. Tai Kwan Do would be the direct opposite style - flashy, move through the ranks relatively quickly, geared toward North Americans who are by nature impatient. It could be said that Tai Kwan Do (where you can get your black belt in 2 to 3 years - some people get their black belts when they are very young) is to Uechi Ryu (where it takes 7 to 10 years to get your black belt and you practice nothing but the very basic movements for the first 2 years) as dragon boat is to flatwater. Except you will not hear karate people putting down other styles. My teacher used to constantly remind us that Tai Kwan Do guys were very dangerous to spar. "If they connect with that kick, you're done", he'd say. "Those guys can kick. Our heavy bags wouldn't last a week with those guys." He would speak in almost reverent tones. A conversation between karate people goes, "you do martial arts, cool, I do too. What style?" And then lot's of talk about commonalities. But always respect. Especially for beginners. And, I must say, the high level, skilled canoers and coaches who I have known are exactly the same way. My experience is that the National team level athletes and high level coaches love seeing people in boats, welcome and encourage beginners, and freely give their time helping paddlers and athletes of all levels and disciplines. These people remind me of my friend, Greg Brothers. Greg Brothers is the best natural athlete I know. My first day of school was also my first day in Canada. The teacher, seeing a lost five year old, took me over and introduced me to another, equally shy and lost 5 year old boy, who by coincidence, had also just moved to Canada. Greg Brothers and I had each others backs from day one. I rode his coattails in every scholastic sport for 12 years. He could do any sport naturally - he was the fastest, strongest and toughest. His skills made him extremely confident, but he was not cocky or boastful. I can remember playing pick up football at a local school yard when we were about 15. Some older bullies came along and took our football and threw it on the roof of the school. They told us that the school ground was their property and we were never to play there again. While I was cowering, Greg Brothers, without a word, ran straight at the wall of the school, somehow took two steps UP the wall, jumped, grabbed the edge of the school roof, and then pulled himself up onto the roof in one motion. He picked up the ball and then jumped off the roof, grabbing the edge of the roof with one hand to catch himself, and then hopped down. He flipped the ball to the biggest of the bullies and said, "wanna play for it?" They never bothered us again. One day Greg Brothers and I were going somewhere, just walking down the street. We were 16 or 17. It was cold and icy and a person in a motorized wheelchair was battling their way through the snow and ice - obviously they had travelled a long way and still had a long way to go. Greg Brothers, full of youth and athletism, says to me - "Now that's strength. That women is special being out here." Which is saying a lot for a 17 year old. I have the quote exact, because I never forgot it. Participate at your level, as you choose. Measure yourself against yourself. Enjoy sport. Every sport brings different challenges. In sports, as in life, you are special being out there.

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