Dragon boaters get back on the water

Members of the Grand Masters Leatherneck Warriors dragon boat team practice on Lake Miona.

It wasn’t even 7 a.m. and the mosquitoes already were making their rounds at Lake Miona. Also busy at work was Lou Barnes, who was getting two dragon boats ready to go out. Barnes is a member of Leatherneck Warriors, who are back on the water following a hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When the group started in 2008, as you might guess from its name, all of its members had been Marines or had some connection to the Corps. The group’s open to all comers now. Barnes is one of the few not from The Villages. He lives in Ocala and gets to the lake early, so he has taken on the responsibility of getting the boats ready for the water.

Bob Kane, of the Village of Piedmont, founded the group and he did serve with the Marines. Following that, he was a firefighter in New York and after moving to The Villages, he created the FDNY 343 Memorial Club, which every year on Sept. 11 honors those who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Those on dragon boat teams must be in top condition to compete, so the six-month layoff took its toll on the Leatherneck Warriors.

Kane already had been working on keeping his team fit and prepared to win when not on the water. He had commissioned a series of bulletins, written by subject matter experts, on various topics including conditioning, exercise, racing procedure and nutrition.

The club also conducted weekly Zoom meetings to keep the team engaged and even put together some fitness videos.

Later, the members began working out in a socially distanced way at the The Villages Polo Club fields. They couldn’t be on the water, but they at least stayed fit while working as a team.

“The crux of the whole training system is to train for health, fitness and mental toughness,” Kane said.

“In The Villages, most of us are here because of activities — we’re trying to push the envelope of life.

“Dragon boating is the consummate cross-training sport for seniors and super seniors,” Kane said.

Barbara Paluszek is a Navy veteran who joined the Leatherneck Warriors shortly after moving to The Villages less than two years ago.

“I applaud Bob because he’s a visionary on what it takes to be an athlete,” said Paluszek, of the Village of Pine Hills.

“I love being a part of it because of the military mission and the people,” she said. It’s peaceful, she explained, to be out paddling on the lake.

Tom Upton, of the Village of Poinciana, is an original member of the Leatherneck Warriors. His cap with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor patch and face mask with the Marine Corps seal leave no doubt of his military background. For Upton, a Vietnam veteran, it’s important to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

“It’s all about team — you have to be in sync,” he said.

Keeping the team in sync on the water is the job of Mary Wilson, of the Village of Belvedere. She is a captain, the person who steers the boat. She’s able to do that and keep everyone in rhythm despite being deaf, one of a few such people on the team.

Rowers have become accustomed to Wilson’s speech patterns and the group has even developed some shorthand expressions to help her. One is the sign language for “duck,” which looks like a beak quacking. That’s used to substitute for the word “dock,” as in where the boats are tied up.

“I never dreamed about being picked as a captain,” Wilson said.

“I give commands for the boat, help people adjust and correct their stroke.”

As team members lined up to board the boats last week, Wilson was the one assigning them their positions. As a safety precaution, the boats went out half-full, with only one person per seat and alternating between port and starboard sides of the boat.

Wilson didn’t serve in the military but has a son who served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps. The military spirit is strong with the Leatherneck Warriors. They display the number 22 on the sleeves of their workout shirts, as well as some of the paddles. That represents the number of veterans and military personnel who take their own lives each day. The group works with Mission 22, an organization that works to support the veteran community.

“Bob reached out to me and wanted to work with us on using the number 22 and the significance of it,” said Diane McCall, of the Village of Marsh Bend, the public relations director for Mission 22.

As the two boats headed out into the early morning mist at Lake Miona, it was clear the paddlers hadn’t gotten too out of sync during the layoff. Even though it was only their third time on the water in six months, they had a good rhythm.

“I have become part of a team environment — we’re family out there,” Wilson said.

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.