CU-Boulder Asian Unity dragon boat team building community of rowers

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What: Colorado Dragon Boat Festival


When: July 19-20


Where: Sloan’s Lake Park, Denver


Cost: Free


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On the sides of an apartment complex pool near campus in Boulder, the new Asian Unity dragon boat team at the University of Colorado practiced paddling in unison while their drummer Kenny Nguyen pounded on an empty cardboard box.


“Paddles ready,” Nguyen yelled. “Attention.”


On his mark, the members of the team began paddling, at first frantically, and then more slowly, all the while chanting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”


The frenzied movements formed dozens of waves in the small pool, which crashed into the walls each time the paddles dipped into the water.


The team, founded by sophomore Luna Ly, is new on campus this year and working hard to prepare for the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival at Sloan’s Lake in Denver this summer.


Ly had been rowing with a cousin for several years, but when that team dissolved, she was disappointed to learn CU didn’t have a dragon boat team.


She recruited many of her friends and began holding practices wherever space was available, often next to pools in student apartment complexes. They got some funny looks at first, she said, but most people were just curious.


The ancient Chinese sport is more than 2,000 years old, according to the festival. Though there are several versions of the legend behind dragon boats, the Colorado festival explains that a Chinese poet and warrior threw himself into a river after being banished. His followers banged on drums and beat their paddles on the water to frighten away fish from his body.


“The cultural roots of dragon boats are really important,” Ly said. “Not only that but it’s really fun.”


For Ly, the sport has many aspects — historical, physical, social. Her teammates are all part of the student group Asian Unity, a social club, open to anyone, that supports and embraces Asian-American culture on campus.


Drummer Nguyen, who said he had no prior drumming experience, joined the team after he watched a cousin rowing last year.


Nguyen, a junior whose voice booms over the pool, said he liked the idea of helping everyone paddle in unison.


“Being the drummer, you get to be a commanding voice,” he said. “He sits directly in front of everyone. Making sure everyone’s on beat, everyone’s in sync.”


The club opened up a space for sophomore Jenni Moon to connect with other Asian Americans and stay in touch with her culture.


Initially, she joined the dragon boat team because she thought it would be a good workout, she said, laughing.


“But I think also the history behind it is really fascinating,” Moon said.


It’s also been helpful for staying in touch with friends over the summer, she said.


Because they’re all sweating together and working toward a common goal, they’ve gotten closer as a group, too.


“It’s really hard,” she said. “It forces you to work with other people in a setting that you’re not used to. Sure, you’ve worked together on like projects, but it’s very physically intense but you get a lot closer because you’re sharing this hard-working experience together.”



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