The year of the Dragon - One team's dominance on a local and international level

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It is 5am on Wednesday morning and after a few consecutive days of rain, the clouds have nothing more to offer. Down at Palm Jumeirah, there are no taxis or people around. It is calm and the only sounds are from a building site half a mile down the road.

Then, after 10 minutes, a body can be seen walking onto Riva Beach, and another two moving briskly shortly after. Chirpy voices all embracing the bright start to the day. But who are these people and why are they up training so early?

This is the Dubai Diggers, a dragon boating powerhouse in the UAE, who are putting the hard yards in, preparing for that sunny day when the big trophies are up for grabs later in the year.

Founded 12 years ago by Australian Nick Hando, the team has been crowned UAE champions almost every year from 2008, as well as tasting multiple success on the international stage.

Dragon Boating is not a sport for the faint hearted, for the unfit or the mentally weak. Although upper body strength plays a crucial part, harmonious teamwork is key for victory on any given day.

The sport involves teams of 20 people per boat, each holding a paddle, and is based around synchronised paddling carried out on flat water. The aim of the sport being to reach the finish line faster than other boats.

But what is it that sets dragon boating apart from the likes of football, cricket or rugby, sports that generally take centre stage in an expat country like the UAE?

For Diggers captain Daniel Wood, a resident of Dubai since 2006, it’s the team spirit and the shared goal of achieving success among a group, that makes the difference for him.

The rigours of individual sport can be motivating and bring enjoyment to some, but everyone has different ambitions, especially given the minimum free-time available as one gets older. Hence, the importance to do activities, sports and surround yourself with people that make you happy.

“I’ve always been a team sport guy, preferring to win as a team than individual,” said Wood, who hails from Perth in Australia.

“I would have played every sport nearly growing up. I’ve competed in individual sports like boxing, but I much more enjoy it when it’s a team environment. I’ll train harder if it’s for a team because I don’t want to let people down.

“I love the dragon boating because you’re fully reliant on everyone on the team. You might have 19 great paddlers, but if you have one person out of sync, then it slows the boat down.

“Everyone needs to be in sync, pulling their own weight. If you do that, the boat moves well. If it doesn’t, it’s going to slow the boat down massively. That’s the part of the sport that appealed to me. You’re reliant on everyone to do well.”

As well as stunning victories in the 2012 and 2016 World Championships, the crowning moment came at the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships in Hong Kong last June.

One of the biggest dragon boating competitions in the world by participation and spectators, there are 400 plus teams and over 100,000 people present on race day.

To underline the significance of this competition, it is recognised as a public holiday in Hong Kong and everyone comes down to watch the racing.

“It was fantastic to win. We dropped over 100kg in total between everyone on the boat ahead of Hong Kong. That’s essentially a person out of the boat and it has a huge effect on the speed of the boat. It’s like carrying one less body. We only won by just a couple of inches and that made the difference,” said Adrian Costigan, who joined the club in 2014.

Not only was it just a couple of inches, but their victory was only half a second ahead of Liechtenstein Princely Navy. Fine margins make a difference.

Costigan, a former rugby player from Kilkenny – an hour outside of Dublin in Ireland, believes getting involved in dragon boating five years ago changed his life.

At that point, the Irishman was training in the gym daily but with little focus or overall goal.

The chance to get involved with the Diggers came through friend Shane, also a club member, and it reset everything for him, having a different sport to compete in and providing more structure to his life.

“It’s the team thing and the shared goal. Getting up early every morning and getting into that routine is nice. You arrive into work and then you’re flying. It’s a great start to the day,” he says.

“With other sports, you can sit back a bit if you’re having a bad day. But, in dragon boating, there’s no sitting back. If you’re taking it easy, everyone can see it. If lads are sitting behind you, and you’re not in time, people can see you’re not working hard at it and they’ll call you out.

“Over the previous years before getting into dragon boating, I put on a bit of weight and, then when I joined, this was a really good reset in my mid 30’s, which will hopefully do me in good in the future.”

Dragon boating traces its roots from ancient China as part of religious rituals dating back more than 2,000 years.

The more modern athletic aspect began in Hong Kong in 1976 and since then it has become a popular competitive sport around the world, testing the skills, techniques and endurance of a person.

In the UAE, dragon boating wasn’t widely practiced until Canadian national Jason McKenzie introduced the idea in 2006, by establishing a competition for enthusiastic paddlers.

Today, the UAE Dragon Boat Association possesses a gold mine of talent, with over 60 teams competing in local races across the Emirates between September and April.

“The competition has grown and grown and there’s plenty of good teams. If you’re lucky enough to win, it’s always by a small margin because the quality of teams are so good here,” said Wood.

“The quantity and quality has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. There are a lot of expat teams, which is great because you meet great people. We have 20 plus nationalities in the Diggers, all from very diverse backgrounds and working in different industries.”

A significant moment arrived for the Diggers in 2012 when they held off the stiff challenge of marquee international boats to secure Club Crew World Championship glory in Hong Kong.

Wood, a lawyer by trade, has set the tone for the culture in the club over the years and continues to inspire his team-mates to achieving greater success.

“We went to world championships every two years and we were lucky enough to win a few of them. We had a really big win at the World Championships in Australia in 2016. We won a gold medal in the mixed 2km, silver in the 500m, bronze in the 200m, and our men’s team got medals,” he said.

“We keep the club to fit guys, select as to who we want to come down. If everyone is strong, pushing and fit, then everyone is moving in the same direction.

“We are doing this to win big international races. We changed our view last year and won the Stanley Championships in Hong Kong. We have grown from there and have 30 plus consistent paddlers.”

Wins on the international stage certainly bode well for the Diggers going forward and it’s a fabulous set up down at Riva Beach three mornings a week with a warm team environment.

People are always going to want to try new sports, which should be encouraged, but with the 5am starts, it is a good filter to see who really is committed and who is driven to work hard out of the water in order to put their hand up for team selection.

As Costigan says, if someone keeps turning up then you’re getting that commitment straight away.

“As a group, we don’t accept someone not putting the effort in. If they don’t put the effort in, they will be asked not to come down. That’s what separates us from the other teams,” said Costigan.

“We want to win and that’s our goal. If guys aren’t putting the extra work in then they won’t make the squad. It gets competitive for seats and guys work really hard. The sheer commitment and drive comes from Woody setting a positive tone as well as the enjoyment of a strong team environment.”

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