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From Melissa Adams

From Melissa Adams, Coach: Phoenix Desert Dragons, Arizona, USA.

For the first time in history, the 16th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Thailand included the Para dragon’s division. Para dragons include athletes with some form of physical, psychological, neurological, sensory, developmental, or intellectual impairment. Teams represented in this division were from Canada, India, Philippines, and the United States. To say that it was humbling would be an understatement, I was truly honored to be a part of this amazing category.

Days before leaving the USA to Thailand, it finally settled in that everything I had worked on the last few months to prepare for Worlds would come down to blending with my teammates and twenty of us taking each stroke as one.

I was reminded of the bigger picture in all of this when a new rower that I have seen around the bay approached me, and we were chatting. When I told him that I was headed to Worlds to compete in the para-athlete division, his exact words to me were, “YOU have an impairment” followed by “if you say so” and then he compared me to another para-athlete who uses a wheelchair.

Sir- “I am not going to get naked in front of you so that you can feel better about my impairment.” Here is the thing, not all impairments are visible. Some of us are impaired under our clothing and some are completely hidden. The sad part is that many individuals with hidden impairments often have those impairments minimized. I saw it all the time when I was working with students who sustained a traumatic brain injury. It is heartbreaking.

So, for those of you with a hidden impairment, I may not fully understand the impact your specific impairment has on you, but I see you, and I acknowledge you. And when I was in Thailand, know that I was paddling for YOU!

When I returned from Thailand, I realized that I was in 21 of 22 races over 6 days to include:

  • 200m x 8

  • 500m x 8

  • 1000m x 2

  • 2000m x 3

I sat out one 500m piece and one round of the 200m races was canceled.

Some of those races were immediately back-to-back. Off the water and right into marshaling. I slept, paddled, and repeated. Eating was optional. I can tell you that is the most I have pushed myself physically and mentally in all of my time dragon boating. There was no quitting, no sleeping in, no saying I would do it tomorrow. It was now or never.

There are countless moments that I’d love to share from the 16th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships, Thailand 2023 but one sticks out the most. Though I wish I had a photo of this moment, sometimes there is more beauty and more meaning in capturing a moment in your mind and in your heart.

To give a little back story, one of the steers for Team USA Para dragons is deaf. All steers were dealing with unfamiliar water, distinctive style of boats, different steering oars, teams full of people they may not have ever steered before, and drummers that are also unfamiliar. Let that sit for a moment…now consider all of that and imagine being deaf.

In the middle of chaos when commands from race officials are being yelled at her, she cannot hear it. Everything must be relayed to her through the drummer using American Sign Language (ASL). Sometimes commands are spewed at steers at rapid fire and the expectation is to respond immediately. The expectation is even higher at the world level of competition. It is easy for things to go sideways quickly…communication breaks down, officials and hearing paddlers become impatient, and an already chaotic situation becomes more chaotic. No matter what the cause, the steers will always carry the burden when things go sideways in a race.

It happened that week and my heart hurt for our steer. She was devastated and disappointed that things had not gone as planned. I could see it in her face and her eyes that she felt like she had let her team down.

In the very last race, the wind had picked up and the water was very choppy. Our steer struggled to get the dragon head into the cup and the race was started without the crew being fully settled or ready at the start line. She was completely crushed.

As we were at our tent debriefing after the race, one of the deaf paddlers from the PADS Adaptive Dragonboat Racing Team, (Philippines) came over to our tent. He wanted to make an announcement- He shared that he wanted to empower our deaf steer. He could see the struggles and challenges throughout the week. He was surprised when he realized that our steer was deaf. He then gave her one of his own gold medals. It was such a beautiful and powerful display of sportsmanship.

This moment was worth everything it took for me to get to Thailand!