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Competitive Fire 

Dragon boats have carried some Pittsburghers from Prague to Hong Kong.

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Right now they're paddling at a pretty good clip: 51 strokes a minute. The 700-pound boat — a long affair with white sides, blue scales, and a dragon's head and tail — jounces down the Allegheny River, sending up spray. It's a good workout, but a far cry from racing speed, when the stroke count will rocket up to 68 a minute.

The sky, a perfect blue with scattered fleecy whites, is punctuated by soaring blue herons and a squadron of brown ducks. And here in the Pittsburgh Paddlefish dragon boat, 20 paddlers are heading down the Allegheny River, facing Downtown's shimmering skyline. With the sun still high enough to dye the water a deep blue, the horizon hosts Fifth Avenue Place's pencil point, PPG Place's crenulated gun turrets, the convention center's giant water-slide roof. To the right, cheers rise from a late-season Pirates game.

In the boat's stern, coach Bob Dassel steers and calls the cadence. "Watch those top arms," he commands as the paddlers bend their backs to the task. "Get those top arms straight. Push out with your bottom arms. Let's add a little bit of leg drive."

Surveying his paddlers, Dassel makes sure that all three sections are working together. Rhythm in the front seats, power in the middle, speed in the stern — grab the moving water, propel it forward.

Housed at Millvale's Pittsburgh Rowing Club, the dragon boat puts in at the back channel of Washington's Landing three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, Saturday. The global sport embraces all genders and ages. While different age categories compete against each other, this evening's practice hosts men and women aged 21-73, all decked out in their blue-and-green sleeveless jerseys.

They've taken different paths to dragon boats. Some sought solace, others exercise. More than a few women, who came of age in the pre-Title IX era, jumped at the chance. "I've never been a member of a competitive or team sport my whole life," says Maureen Young. "This is so exciting."

"I'm happy out here," adds Lorie Swenson, who says she, too, came for camaraderie.

But the training is serious: paddling an hour a day, three days a week, spring through fall. The off-season finds crew members in the gym, lifting weights, using ergonomic paddlers to tone muscles and sharpen skills. Last April, 18 of the club's 32 members went to Indian Harbor, Fla., for dragon-boat camp on the Banana River.

Many have entered dragon-boat competitions around the world — from Prague to Taiwan, Berlin to Malaysia, Venice to Hong Kong. 

Here in Pittsburgh, the sun has dropped closer to the river. Breaking through the thick bank-side foliage, the strong yellow light rakes the paddlers' backs and arms, then hides again in the trees.

Turning back upriver, Dassel has been replaced by Marie Hirsch, a retired practical nurse and intrepid paddler.

"Give me 20 Deep," Hirsch commands, "in two ... one ... deep!"

Paddles bite the river more deeply now, sending up spray.

"Lengthen it out," she barks. "Let the glide work for us. There it is. There it is."

The dragon boat streaks along the river's surface.

"Nice and long," Hirsch instructs. "Let's get some glide in this boat. Let the boat run out beneath you."

A two-beat pause as the dragon boat skims along the river's gently rippled surface.

"Perfect," she says. "Paddles up."

Synchronized as one, the paddlers are poised and ready.

"No more Mr. Nice Guy," she says. "Up for 20 in two-one-go."

They all nod.

"Two. One. Go!"

They are all frenzied motion again, paddles digging into the water.

"Give me what you've got," Hirsch shouts. "Barb and Lisa: I want you to reach out. Reach!"

Stretching their arms as far as they can, the two lead paddlers sweep water behind them.

"Three. Two. One. Lengthen!"

The rest of the crew imitate the lead paddles' long, smooth strokes.

The sun's down now, as Hirsch steers them into the Washington's Landing channel. Pockets of green along the shoreline have turned dark in the eviscerated light. Behind them, inky blackness creeps around the trees, and across the water's surface. As the dragon boat glides gently on the water's surface, the light leaches out of the sky, blue to slate, gray to onyx.

"Power 10," Hirsch commands, and the paddlers count off 10 sweeping strokes, each of which builds up the boat's skimming speed.

"Two. One. Up!" Hirsch says. The paddles go still, as the boat carries forward. 

"Let it run," she says. And the dragon boat glides toward home.

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