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Pittsburgh Paddlefish celebrates 15th season

October 2, 2018

The Pittsburgh Paddlefish Dragon Boat Team celebrated its 15th anniversary this summer. The team is open to people of all ages.

Paddlefish may be a rare sighting in the Allegheny River these days, but a bigger, wooden version of the fresh fish hits the water at least three times a week.

Members of the Pittsburgh Paddlefish Dragon Boat Team, aboard a 41-foot-long canoe-type boat with a dragon head and tail on either end, are hard to miss as they paddle in unison up and down the Allegheny River.

“The stroke comes from your whole body,” said steering committee captain Lori Swensson. “It’s from your feet, through your hips and core, and into your shoulders.”

The Pittsburgh Paddlefish is associated with the Millvale-based Three Rivers Rowing Association, and operates out of its boathouse and training center along the banks of the Allegheny River. It is one of two dragon boat teams in Pittsburgh, joined by Steel City Dragons in O’Hara.

In July, the team celebrated its 15-year anniversary, honoring its growth and achievements.

The size of the group has grown tremendously since the start from a handful to nearly 50, said O’Hara Township resident, paddler and membership coordinator Kathy Bakkila.

“In 2003, there were about half a dozen people that started a recreational team, but that has rapidly expanded,” Bakkila said.

Dragon boating is a centuries old Chinese tradition and one of the world’s oldest team sports. Essentially, it’s a race to see whose dragon can cross the finish line first.

Its originality as well as the camaraderie it fosters drew Bakkila to Pittsburgh Paddlefish four years ago.

“It’s a sport that anyone can participate in,” Bakkila said. “You don’t have to be the top athlete to be a part of the team because here, everyone works together.”

The team welcomes people from anywhere and of any age. Currently, membership age ranges from 39 to 75, and people travel from all different neighborhoods to participate weekly.

“Once they are addicted to the sport, people will come across rush hour to get to it,” Bakkila said. “We have people from Peters Township, Lawrenceville, O’Hara...you name it.”

For Swensson, Squirrel Hill is home, but the travel means nothing to her if she can get out on the water.

Swensson operates a boat of 20 paddlers, and for the boat’s success, she said, timing and cooperation is everything.

“For technique, being in time with the other paddlers is essential -- otherwise individual efforts are canceled out,” she said.

Swensson has paddled with the team since its start 15 years ago, but she remembers what it’s like to try the sport for the first time. She said synchronization is one of the hardest skills for newcomers to pick up, but once achieved, the aspect of the technique is very appealing.

“Beginners tend to use only their arms, which makes them fatigue quickly,” Swensson said. “It’s more complicated to integrate and use the body’s large muscles. But then, the stroke becomes much more powerful.”

The Pittsburgh Paddlefish are not limited to the Allegheny River and can be found in both national and international waters. They’ve traveled to competitions throughout the US in New York, Boston, Richmond and Tampa as well as internationally to Canada, Hungary, Hong Kong and the Czech Republic for the World Dragon Boat Championships.

“Being a part of this team is a very rewarding experience,” Swennson said. “And being physically fit feels wonderful, too.”

For more, visit pittsburghpaddlefish.org

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