For over 30 years, Christine Yee, RN, has worked as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., and in the pediatric clinic at Kaiser Richmond. In recent years she had witnessed an increase in the number of young patients suffering from chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma, and she wished there was another way to help improve their health.

She found the solution five years ago, when she offered to teach a group of Bay Area youths, ages 13 to 18, the basics of dragon boating.

Dragon boat racing is an ancient sport that began over 2,300 years ago in China. Generally, each dragon boat team has a crew of 20 paddlers, a steersperson and a drummer, who beats out a rhythm on a large drum to help the paddlers synchronize their strokes. The boat itself is a 45- to 48-foot canoe weighing from 500 to 1,200 pounds and adorned at the bow and stern with a colorful carved dragon head and tail. Today, dragon boating is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports and is practiced in more than 35 countries.

Yee was introduced to dragon boating 10 years ago by a friend and immediately became addicted to it. “I was hooked from the first day,” she says. “It’s a fantastic sport.”

Yee’s team participates in races from March through October of each year. In addition to local competitions, the team travels to Portland, Ore., and Southern California to compete in races there. This year, they’ve added the Hawaiian dragon boat races in Honolulu to their schedule. The team members meet twice a week for regular practices.

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“In a race, we always dress our boat with a head and a tail,” Yee says. “Our boat was built in Vancouver and an artist paints each head differently, so we have a unique dragon boat head.”

Although Yee is very athletic and has long enjoyed physical activities like hiking, dancing, scuba diving and backpacking, she admits she wasn’t initially prepared for her first dragon boat race. “It was a grueling experience, because my first dragon boat team was not properly instructed in how to paddle,” she recalls. “After that first race, we began to learn correct paddling techniques.”

For the dedicated dragon boat racer, the commitment to proper paddling technique is always evolving in the search for the perfect stroke. Team members are supportive and camaraderie is quickly formed.

“Being out on the water refreshes the mind after a hard day at work,” Yee adds. “It is a great way to beat stress.”

Teaching Teamwork

Yee soon realized how dragon boating could benefit the health and overall well-being of many of her young patients. Five years ago, she began volunteering to teach local teenagers the fundamentals of dragon boating. Last year, Yee was presented with a Jefferson Award for Public Service for her ongoing work mentoring Bay Area youths.

“The experience of dragon boating has had such a positive impact on my life that I knew it could also be a positive experience for teens,” she says. “For some of these kids, this is their only regular form of exercise.”

To date, Yee has introduced over 100 youths to the sport. Some of them are at-risk kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who learn the importance of hard work, mutual respect, cooperation and pulling together to work as a team. Others come from immigrant families. Yee cites statistics showing that many immigrant youths are fighting chronic health conditions or are at risk for obesity.

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“Dragon boating requires upper and lower body strength and can be very challenging as all 20 paddlers attempt to synchronize their strokes and then increase their endurance and power,” she says. “It’s exciting to see the teens develop as a team and form friendships and camaraderie that is so important at this time in their lives.”

Yee’s dragon boating teammates help out by providing the necessary equipment and volunteering their own time to help coach the youths. “The kids are so inspiring,” Yee says. “They come from so many different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and it’s such a great opportunity for them to learn how to communicate with one another and how to work together.”

While she admits to being shy and reserved, Yee feels that dragon boat racing has helped to make her more assertive. Dragon boating, she says, is about more than just what happens on the water. It also stresses teamwork on land.

“We are encouraged to stay in shape by continuing to do aerobic exercise and weight training. Team members are also encouraged to be friendly with competing teams and to show good sportsmanship,” she explains. “I’m used to doing athletic activities by myself, but dragon boating taught me how to be part of a team.”

Christine Yee (standing) steers her teams dragon boat in a race in Long Beach, California Christine Yee (standing) steers her teams dragon boat in a race in Long Beach, California.

Even an injury couldn’t prevent Yee from participating in the sport she loves. Three years ago, she broke her shoulder and may need additional medical procedures. While she has not been able to paddle, she now stands at the back of the narrow boat and steers her teammates to victory.

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Her enthusiasm and prowess for the sport recently earned her an invitation to the 2008 Club Crew World Championships in Penang, Malaysia, to compete as part of a women’s master (over 40) dragon boat team.

“I hope to continue dragon boating for years to come,” she says. “It’s inspiring to see people who are well into their 80s continue to enjoy this sport.”

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