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Dragon Boating Is The Great Equalizer

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Nanaimo Daily News, July 9, 2007.

Picture: Teams get ready at start line for Race in Spring 2007 Race

Visually Impaired Paddlers Compete on Level Playing Field with Sighted Peers

After two wins out on the water in one day, team Eye of the Dragon wasted little time before celebrating in an appropriate manner.

"My team is all in the beer garden," said coach Dan Hebert, as he stood outside his team tent on Saturday.

Eye of the Dragon is made up of 50% blind or visually impaired paddlers and travelled from Vancouver to race in the Nanaimo Dragon Boat Festival on the weekend.

What began in 1993 as one visually impaired paddler on one team is now a competitive and dedicated group partially sponsored by B.C. Blind Sports.

The team members describe dragon boating as one of the only sports that puts athletes with vision loss on the same level as their sighted peers, without any adaptation or prior experience.

Lee Grenon has been a member of red-shirted Eye of the Dragon since 2001. He was born with a visual impairment but went on to win medals at three Paralympic Games.

"We're competitive with other local teams because we have great team spirit that's inclusive of everyone on the team," he said. "Everyone, whether blind or sighted, is expected to be committed and do your best."

Maggie Livingstone, who is legally blind, grinned over a pint of beer after her race.

"I love it," she said. "Twice, we kicked butt."

Livingstone has dedicated eight years to "Eye" and was a volunteer before that.

"When we first started, it wasn't much of a challenge. Now, it's very challenging and competitive," she said.

"But all the teams, we have respect for them. We're the only officially visually impaired dragon boat."

Johnny Tai, who is visually impaired, and Bruce Robinson, who is not, are paddle partners in the dragon boat.

"(Johnny) can get in and out the boat faster than anyone," Robinson said.

"I'm also the best looking," added Tai.

Tai said dragon boating is the first team sport he's tried and he enjoys its enduring "competitive spirit."

"The team members with visual impairments, they paddle by the feel of it," Robinson said.

"You feel the rate of paddling automatically. If it gets out of time, we just yell 1-2-3, and they get right back in time."

Members of the team like each other so much, they've started to pair off.

Tai met girlfriend Liz Reid when they both joined the team.

"We're the team with the most couples," Reid said.

"It's hard work, but it's worth the challenge."

Hebert, who initially planned to coach for only one year, said the team is just so much fun.

"But they do keep pairing up," he said. "They call it the love boat."

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