DRAGONBOAT - BABY, AND BACK AGAIN, Michelle, September 2017

The Treasure Island Quandary

My heart was racing, as was his . . . . inside of me. After weeks of debate, I finally resolved to race with my baby. The decision to race was a tough one.

On one hand, my husband and I had been trying unsuccessfully for a second baby for what felt like a lifetime. I had a miscarriage two years prior and I didn't have the strength to suffer through another. Friends I consulted advised that it was "better safe than sorry;" and while some versions of Dragonboat might fit the OB's definition of a low impact sport, Dragonboat with The Healers did not.

On the other hand, this was the race we had been training for all year. Prior races were just practice for this one. Competition would be fierce, as teams were flying in from around the world to be here - the 20th and last International Dragonboat Festival at Treasure Island! How could I let my teammates down now? Something about pulling out two weeks before the race didn't seem right, so I kept my pregnancy a secret and continued to train.

This season, Coach Ross added a fourth "rain-or-shine" practice. Each tenth of a second we shaved off our race time inspired us to dig deeper, reach farther, paddle harder, and find the place where we thought we had nothing left to give. From there, we drew strength from the beauty of Cotton-candy sunsets that graced Lake Merced at dusk and squeezed in a few more race pieces on each side before the silhouettes of Cypress and Eucalyptus trees started blending with the darkened sky. Evening practices were cold. The bone-chilling wind stung our drenched bodies as we piled out of the boat. But the camaraderie, the post-practice shots at The Philosopher's Club that chased heavenly next-door burritos, kept us toasty in the warm hearth of fine company of our teammates.

On the day of the race, I prayed for guidance. I closed my eyes and asked my baby for his blessing as he raced with me. In the chaos of the festival, amid the pounding drums and splashing waters, I took solace in knowing that I was carrying life. The races that day were magical. We raced the best we did all season at that festival, and after our team's last race was over, I paddled one last race with Infinity and helped them bring home a gold in their division before we called it a day.

A week after the race, I had to refuse one of Ross' mouthwatering martini's at the Captain & Coach's post-season soiree. That was when I broke my news to the team. I figured it was bad form to tell them before the race, but a week after seemed just about right.

Fast-Forward Two Years . . .

Since that last race at Treasure Island, I hadn't been in a boat or held a paddle in two years. We were blessed with a beautiful baby boy who we named Ethan, and I was immersed in the exciting adventure of motherhood. My older son just started Nursery School which came with all sorts of work-days, meetings, volunteer days, and planning play-dates with other parents. Meanwhile, after Ethan was born, there were round-the-clock feedings and never-ending mountains of dishes, laundry and diapers that seemed to grow exponentially as soon as you weren't getting rid of them. By day I coached private school sports and taught dance at the San Francisco Youth Ballet Academy. By night, I was the one who ran to Ethan's room whenever he cried for milk since he was exclusively breast-feeding.

I continued to receive team emails, and in early spring when unrelenting storms flooded the streets, I was pleased to be hiding away in my mama-bear lair, waking up late and enjoying a cozy afternoon inside with my babies. How horrid those rain-or-shine practices sounded to me now! But I never forgot the warmth of the team and how the Healers always made me feel like family. Time and again, I missed being part of the team. But now I was a mom of not one but two little cubs. I had a baby and a Kindergartener. There was no way I could race competitively now. I could barely find time to make a cup of coffee. How could I go out and practice three times a week? Some days I would just think "how did I used to do that?"

Then something happened. Facebook fed me some "8 years ago today" memory photos from a nostalgic photoshoot my friend did with me before I was even married. I liked the way my sculpted shoulders looked in the photo and decided to share it on my timeline just because. Funny thing was, judging by people's comments, no one appeared to have read the "8 years ago" date on the photos and reacted with shock as if those photos were of me now. So I decided it was only fair to CLARIFY that this was me 8 years ago . . . but that I was hoping to get back to that shape . . . to which Team Captain Kathy replied: "we can get you into paddle shape for Lake Merritt."

I replied with all sorts of excuses. We had a ton of weekend commitments, were going to NY for a wedding, and I basically wouldn't be able to go to any but the last 2 Saturday practices (which I knew was completely unacceptable since paddlers had been gently asked to "leave" the team for missing fewer practices than I would be missing in the next 3 weeks).

Then the unthinkable happened . . . Ross chimed in.

Coach Ross

Coach Ross is a man of few words. If the Clint Eastwood character in Million Dollar Baby drank beer and paddled, that would be him. He loves his team fiercely and will stop at nothing to make champions of each member of his team if they are willing to do their part. Ross is strict. He demands excellence, and has the eyes of an eagle that can focus on what every part of your body is doing, even if he is in the back of the boat or happens to be paddling in a row that seems to be covered up. He runs a tight ship. No one dares to question his commands. Despite his stern demeanor, is the most devoted and selfless coach that I know. What he doesn't do, however, is "small talk."

That being said . . . my first thought when I saw that Ross commented on my post was: "Huh???? Ross comments on FB?????"

But then his words sank in. They came as a gentle nudge; the sage comments of a serious coach who believed in me more than I (at the moment) believed in myself. After a brief exchange of replies, Ross invited me to to race with the team. I thought long and hard about it. At a time when I barely had enough time after work to cook, clean, and take care of my kids, I would have to find a way to come to as many practices as possible. The entire team had been training all year. I would be joining 2 months before the race. It was going to be a tough journey to get to the place I had to be, but if my husband could watch the kids for two months, then I could probably do it.

The Journey Back

I hadn't touched a paddle in 2 years and hadn't been to the gym in ages. If Ross and Kathy thought I looked anything like that "8 years ago today" memory photoshoot, they would be sorely disappointed. But I had three weeks before I would see them since we were travelling in New York, so I made a 60-day plan. I cut out sweets and refined carbs. I increased my protein intake and started running and working out at the gym. I swam with my friend Jen, and incorporated red chili and seaweed/kelp into my diet to increase my metabolism. I did all the little tricks I used to do when I used to work out to maximize my results in a short period of time. In classes I coached for work, I had my kids join me in doing planks, lunges, and arm-strengthening exercises so that I would be forced to do them too. I cut out alcohol, and went to three Dragonboat practices a week after we got back from New York. I knew if I weighed less, the boat would be easier to pull. The same would also be true if I were stronger. My plan was to achieve both. I lost weight and gained muscle. By race day, I felt ready.

It was an honor to find myself on the team's Gold Boat roster. On the water, the boat felt more powerful than I had ever imagined. In our Quarter-finals, the top 4 teams all had a time of 2.17XXX, and we squeezed into A-Division by a thousandth of a second, just above the 4th place team, by getting a fraction of a stroke ahead.

Before this weekend, I had never raced in A-Division. It was thrilling to be on the water with teams that I had only marveled at from a distance. It felt surreal. What surprised me most was how close we came to getting a bronze in the finals. The fact that we only missed a bronze in A-Division by 0.4 seconds made what was once unthinkable, a realistic goal.

The Healers will always have a piece of my heart and I can only hope that my two sons will carry on the tradition when they are old enough to paddle. In the meantime, it is my job to lead by example; to show them that no matter where they are starting from, they can achieve excellence if they are dedicated to their goals and believe in themselves. This is a lesson that I think all of us Healers have learned from Ross and Kathy.

Regardless of shape, size, age, or physical limitations, Ross will coach anyone to be a champion if only they are willing, and Kathy is like a mom to our team. She makes sure that everyone is fed, cared for, and has a ride to where they need to go. It doesn't matter who you are, where you go, or how long you've been gone. Once you're a Healer, you are always welcome to come home!

It was truly an honor and a privilege to race with the team again. Ross & Kathy, thank you for bringing me back. Your vote of confidence means a lot to me! GO HEALERS!