Retiring after a decade of dragon boating

Dragon boating

After more than a decade in dragon-boating, Shelley Hayes claims she’s walking away.

Retiring from the sport to pursue other interests.

Sad to be leaving, but happy to be moving on to exciting new opportunities.

We are skeptical.

Listen to this woman talk about dragon-boating and her cherished Water Warriors team and you get the sense that this is a half-hearted retirement.

She says this is it, but so did Brett Farve before he came back two or three or 15 times.

Sometimes the pull is too strong, and a Vegas casino would put good odds on Hayes being back in a boat next summer.

You see, dragon-boating was merely a sport 11 years ago when Hayes took up a casual suggestion from a neighbor and gave it a try.

She tried it.

She liked it.

She stuck with it and slowly it became so much more.

“Because the team was composed of friends, and friends of friends, we were there for more than just winning medals,” Hayes explained. “We were all on a journey together, none of us knowing how it was going to go.”

It all started so humbly, with a group of original Water Warriors practicing stroke technique in a church basement.

“We set up chairs down there in kind of a boat formation, and we used broom handles to practice,” Hayes laughed. “I wish we’d taken pictures of it, because it must have been a sight. But that’s how keen we were, and we didn’t think there was anything odd about it.”

Their goal was to compete at a regatta they’d heard about, a big one that happens at Vancouver’s False Creek every year.

So scant was their knowledge of the sport that they didn’t even know how many women were allowed on the dragon boat.

They assumed 10.

(correct answer, 20)

“A ladies-only gym gave us almost free memberships and designed workout routines for all of us — the whole team met on Tuesday nights for aerobics,” Hayes recalled. “It was hard work, but all of us wanted to make it work. I think being part of that team inspired a competitive spirit that none of us knew we had.”

The Water Warriors went to their first regatta with low expectations, simply hoping to have fun and get their feet wet.

They ended up winning.

“And we were that clueless that we didn’t know we’d won,” Hayes chuckled. “We all went home Sunday night. The following week we had a team meeting and the captain walked in with this rack of bronze medals.”

Hayes started off as a paddler, but became the team’s coach when tendinitis in both elbows forced a change of plans.

“I had to take a year off from boating or have surgery, and I didn’t want to do that,” she recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Oh no! What do I do? What do I do?’ So I ran out and got my coaching certificates and started doing that in 2005.”

Hayes regretted having to give up paddling.

“There was something about being on the water and being so focussed on what you’re doing,” she said. “It was kind of a Zen effect, and even though you’re working really really hard it just feels worthwhile to sink your blade into the water to make the boat go faster, in concert with 19 other women.”

It didn’t take long for Hayes to fall in love with coaching and with her attention to detail and knack for organization, she turned out to be pretty good at it.

“Dragon boating is an easy sport to learn but a difficult sport to master,” she said. “I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for things they’re doing that they shouldn’t be doing — trying to break bad habits so they can be more effective with their paddle.

Dragon boating is all about teamwork.

Hayes knew that as a paddler, but never fully appreciated the notion until she sat at the front of the boat.

“We always did well when we all got along, but if there was some discontent for whatever reason, the boat didn’t move as quickly,” she said. “When there’s harmony, I sit up at the front of the boat on my little tippy tiny seat, and I see them all knuckling down and giving it all they’re worth. And when you see them giving their heart and soul to the task, it’s pretty magical.”

Dragon boating has provided Hayes with countless memories.

The funniest moment was one that was scary at the time.

At a late-April regatta in frigid Deep Cove, the Water Warriors were paddling under the guidance of a new steers person who was having a little trouble keeping the boat on track.

Facing towards the back of the boat, Hayes didn’t know there was a problem until their boat collided with another, throwing her into the water.

“It was deadly scary because there were two tons of boat coming together and I was in the middle, with the lifejacket keeping me afloat,” she said. “Fortunately, I was able to duck my head down, and they pulled me out.”

Her teammates remember her first words as she was fished out of the water.

First, ‘Oh (rhymes with spit), my ear!’ because she’d gone to the regatta with a staph infection, and promised her doctor she wouldn’t get it wet.

Then, ‘We haven’t gone 50 metres yet! We can re-race!’

Hayes makes dragon boating sound so wonderful as she talks about the competition, the camaraderie, the support.

Which brings us back to our original point. Why would she walk away, and can she actually follow through with it?

“It’s a matter of time. Everything I do requires preparation, and I don’t have the time to do everything,” she said. “I teach pre-school and I work at an elementary school. Both of those require preparation and this requires preparation and I don’t have any off time. I’m the only original member left, and it’s just time to let someone else take over.”

Hayes says she will miss it desperately, particularly when spring rolls around and boats get back on the water. She wants to take up stand-up paddle boarding, but it won’t be the same.

At a Tuesday night practice at Cultus Lake, her Water Warrior teammates gathered around to hear her talk, glancing at each other with knowing looks.

One of them joked about Val, a team member who retires every year.

As resolute as Hayes seems now, they suspect she may keep the window slightly open.

“I really do think this is the end, and I don’t dare be out there on a Tuesday night with my paddle board, because I’ll cry,” Hayes said. “Or, maybe I’ll paddle up beside them and holler at them a bit. That might be fun.”