Dragon boat teams begin socially distanced workouts off the water

Dottie Baker, foreground, of the Village of Hemingway and a member of the Sparta 70 dragon boat team, exercises with the Leatherneck Warriors and the Sparta 70 dragon boat teams on Monday.

Dragon boaters have been beached for three months now thanks to COVID-19 and, while activities in Florida slowly resume in phases, the sport will remain on pause for at least the immediate future. The confines of a dragon boat don’t allow for social distancing or, with appropriate spacing, limit capacity to just a handful of rowers.

Teams in The Villages are determined to stay competition-ready, though, even with competitions on hold. Two teams — the Leatherneck Warriors and Sparta 70 — have resumed workouts, opting for semiweekly conditioning sessions while they’re required to remain ashore.

“It just has to be done,” said Bob Kane, a captain on both teams. “We have to move them from a mindset of survival — living in a house, going out every once in a while — we have to get them up to a race philosophy as soon as we can.”

Monday morning, two dozen boaters gathered at The Villages Polo Club for a socially distanced workout. Each athlete stood at least 6 feet from their nearest teammate while the group followed Warriors conditioning coach Barbara Paluszek through an hourlong series of exercises. It was the first time Sparta 70 had gathered in person since March. The Warriors reconvened for the first time June 11.

“I was eager to get out,” said Sparta 70 paddler Rod Tompkins. “It’s much better than being in four walls and trying to do the workout at home, which is very difficult.”

Tompkins, of the Village of Buttonwood, has done plenty of exercise on his own during the pandemic but missed the camaraderie of the team.  “I think last month I cycled over 700 miles, and that’s the most I have for several years because ordinarily we dragon boat four days a week,” he said.

“Individually, you can be physically active but it’s more difficult than with a group,” Tompkins said. “It’s more enjoyable to be physically active with a group, with your teammates, so I think that’s the difference.”

“Actually seeing people in person and respecting the social distancing, it’s been great and I just think you can see the energy that people have and they’re excited,” said Paluszek, of the Village of Pine Hills. “Even though we can’t get back on the boat and people are disappointed by that, people are fine with heavy conditioning as a team and we’re working toward getting back on the boat. I think it was important for us to do it.”

Monday’s hourlong workout included a combination of weight and non-weight exercises focused on total-body fitness and targeting the muscle groups most utilized while paddling.

“Our system is excellent and every single drill that we do, every exercise we do, is predicated on what we have to do on the boat,” said Kane, a Village of Piedmont resident. The opportunity for the teams to focus on conditioning is one the captains plan to take full advantage of, already planning ways to expand the program.

“After people get really comfortable with these, they get their weight up on what they’re picking up, then we’ll extend it out,” Paluszek said.

“We’re going to try and evolve this over the coming weeks, depending on how close we are to getting on the boat.”