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‘It seemed like such a cool thing to join a local sport’

Texas-native Elissa Imran moved to Hong Kong with her husband and two young children from New York City in 2010. After settling in Stanley, Elissa learned of the American Women’s Association (AWA) Globe Paddlers dragon boat team and decided to give dragon boating a go. The team recruits from October to December each year.

The AWA Globe Paddlers are one of Hong Kong's most successful female dragon boating teams
The AWA Globe Paddlers are one of Hong Kong’s most successful female dragon boating teams

Although she had no previous experience, Elissa saw this as a great opportunity to meet people and start a new fitness regime. “After knee surgeries in high school I couldn’t handle running sports anymore,” she says. “I was excited to get back to a team environment. It also seemed like such a cool thing to join a local sport.”

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Reaping the rewards

The adventure and hard work paid off and the Globe Paddlers are now among the most successful female paddlers in Hong Kong. “My first year was the first year the team won anything. We then won the Stanley International Ladies Cup for five consecutive years. We discovered that it’s not just about how hard we work and how good we are; it’s about the competition. The ladies’ races have really grown. Last year we came in third place in Stanley. We’re hopeful to take back the cup this year!”

Elissa says as an expat team, they do have a high-turnover of team-mates. “We have a unique situation as we are mostly an expat team, made up of women from all over the world,” she says. “We lose almost half the team every year, so we run a recruiting season from October to December. Women are welcome to try out the sport and meet the team during that time. In January, we set the roster and ask for a commitment for the season.”

dragon boating: recruiting season is from October to December
Recruiting season is from October to December

Training, technique and timing

The team usually trains on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for a total of three hours on the water, and an hour of land training. Elissa says team members are also expected to keep up their fitness off the boat, although there is no required training regimen outside of practice. “We like to tell people, ‘Get fit for dragon boat, don’t use dragon boat to get fit!’,” she says.

Elissa concedes dragon boat technique is pretty tough to learn. “In addition to building the right muscles and endurance, you have to be willing to work at the technique,” she says. “Even after six years, I still have things I can improve. Timing is top priority on the boat – getting 20 paddlers in sync is why we need so many hours on the water. Every race is tough. The water and wind conditions can make a big difference, and you never really know what you’ll get until competition day.”

This year, the Globe Paddlers will be taking part in the International Dragon Boat Races (IDBR) in Victoria Harbour. “There are usually several overseas teams that come in, including a professional team from China,” Elissa says. “No other team even comes close to them. They told us they train six days a week for at least six hours a day. And the average age is early 20s – our average age is closer to 50!”

The dragon boating team meets regularly for morning training sessions
The team meets regularly for morning training sessions

A dragon boating workout

We asked Elissa what an ideal workout for the sport might be, based on its particular physical requirements.

‘The key muscles for dragon boating are the core muscles – abs and obliques – so that would be a top priority. Next would be the shoulders – particularly to provide rotator cuff support. And the lats and traps, especially in women, are often a bit underdeveloped. You need them for paddling but they’re also very important for posture. We have a warm-up workout that we use at every practice – it’s pretty basic as we’re on the pavement: pushups, squats, crunches, planks, side planks, and incline pull-ups using the parking bars. We also do a basic stretching routine before we get on the boat. After our first few minutes of paddling we do a bit more of a stretch – shoulders, triceps, forearms, spinal twist, obliques, glutes. In a tough practice, we generally take at least one more break to stretch.”

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This article first appeared in the June/July edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.

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