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Dragon boat padding gaining popularity at Tempe Town Lake

“We started off by paddling along the side of the lake with milk crates and then now it’s become actual dragon boats,” Eric Tang said.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Each week, hundreds of dragon boat paddlers practice on the water at Tempe Town Lake. This water sport made its way to the desert, thanks to a sister-city partnership between Phoenix and Taipei established in 1979.

“In 2000, Taipei invited a group of rowers to participate in their annual dragon boat festival,” Ben Choi with the Arizona Dragon Boat Association said. 

Even though the rowers had never practiced dragon boat racing, they hopped on a plane to Taipei and competed. 

Dragon boating is different than rowing because paddles are used instead of oars. Dragon boats can hold up to 20 paddlers. There’s usually a person steering the boat in the back and a drummer in the front synchronizing the beat with the front two paddlers. 

Choi said when the rowers returned to the desert, “they found themselves in love with the sport.”

But they didn’t have any dragon boats to practice with in Tempe, so they improvised.

“We put milk crates at the side of the lake and basically took these long canoe paddles and we just paddled along the side of the lake,” Eric Tang said. “That’s how we started off, by paddling along the side of the lake with milk crates and then now it’s become actual dragon boats.”

More than two decades later, over 300 paddlers are a part of the Arizona Dragon Boat Association.

“We have people from all walks of life, all ages, all stages. We have a visually impaired paddler in the boat. We have adaptive teams with different physical limitations, so we don’t preclude anyone,” Choi said.

What began as a water sport that started in China over 2,000 years ago, is helping Arizonans find community. 

“22 years I’ve formed a lot of great friendships,” Tang said, “Anyone from 8 years old to 100 years old, there’s no age limit on this. Come and try out dragon boating. It’s a great sport and you’ll meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds.”

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