It is one of those near-perfect nights in late spring, when daylight stretches into evening. On the grassy slope along the riverbank, a group of women gather. They buckle themselves into red life vests, grab their paddles, clamber into the boat, and spend a few minutes debating whether or not to take their sunglasses for the waning sunlight. With their drummer in front keeping the rhythm, their steersman in back keeping the course, and their coach standing guard, arms crossed on an adjacent motor boat, they take to the water. Immediately, the women are in sync. Paddles move in perfect rhythm, dipping in and out of the warm river water. They are twenty women moving as one; twenty paddles moving as one. And as they travel across the smooth surface of the water, something happens. Everything else disappears. There are no cell phones here on the river. Imagine—twenty moms with no cell phones. The kids and husbands who came to watch recede into the background as the boat glides further out onto the river. There are no grocery lists here; no doctor appointments to be made. There are no deadlines or meetings or even conversations. There is silence. There is paddling. There is the woman in front of you, the woman beside you, and the woman in back of you. Off the boat, they are doctors, lawyers, consultants, financial advisors, designers. On the boat, they are something else. They are one machine. They are a team. They are Relentless.
Team Relentless is New Hope’s all-women’s dragon boat racing team. If you’ve ever crossed the New Hope-Lambertville bridge on a Thursday evening or Sunday morning and spied what looks like an overgrown canoe packed with vigorously paddling women, you’ve seen them. The 2000-year-old Chinese tradition has evolved into an extremely popular and competitive sport. “Dragon boat racing is the second largest participant sport behind soccer,” said Ken Wong, Team Relentless’ coach. “It’s growing like gangbusters here in the U.S.”
Being a popular sport is one thing. Becoming an instant obsession among a group of unsuspecting Bucks County moms is quite another. So, how did it happen? “On a whim,” said Kris Rogerson, president of the team. It was last spring when she and several friends heard about Philadelphia’s annual International Dragon Boat Festival. “It was this running joke of, ‘Okay, who’s going to organize the boat?’” said Rogerson. Then she went to the website and found out that they were registering teams for an October race. It was only June. They actually had time to practice. She called her friend, Lauren Forlenza, who is now the team’s vice president. Oddly, Forlenza agreed to do it. “I didn’t want to register until I had a partner in crime,” said Rogerson. “So we registered a boat. We figured, ‘if you build it, they will come.’”
Oddly, they came. A team needs twenty-one members – ten rows of two paddlers and one drummer who sits at the front of the boat, somewhat like a coxswain in crew. Rogerson sent out twenty-one emails and got twenty-one acceptances. Friends, neighbors, even her 65-year-old mother said ‘yes.’ “I thought I would be twisting people’s arms,” said Rogerson. “But everyone was along for the ride.” And so, a ragtag group of moms, and one grandmom, dropped everything – their cell phones, their carpool schedules, their sippy cups, their business meetings – and started paddling.
First, they needed a name. Even before they could register, they needed a title for their non-existent team and their non-existent boat. They landed on the name “Relentless,” which had personal meaning for the team captains. For Forlenza, it had a strong resonance. As a survivor of Hodgkin’s Disease, she had worn a wristband printed with the word “relentless,” representing her triumph over illness. For Rogerson, it had perhaps a less weighty meaning. “My husband and I like a wine called ‘Relentless,’” she said with an embarrassed smile.
So they had a team of twenty-one clueless women and a great name. Now what? When a team registers for the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival, they get three hours of practice on the Schuylkill River, a boat to use, paddles and life jackets. That’s it. It didn’t take long for the women to realize that they were essentially up a river with a paddle. “We thought, well we could just go out there and be silly, but we felt responsible to all the people we sucked into this,” said Rogerson. “Let’s face it, we’re a bunch of Type-A personalities, so if we do it, we’re going to get everything out of it we possibly can get out of it.”
So eight members of the team signed up for a one-day, intensive, instructional dragon boat camp. “We were eight moms from Bucks County thrusting ourselves into this Philadelphia Dragon Boat culture, like ‘We’re here! Who wants to teach us how to do this?’” said Rogerson.
By the end of that day, the women had made some important connections. Perhaps it was their unabashed enthusiasm. Perhaps it was their earnest determination. Perhaps it was their adorable cluelessness (like when team member Lori Gettis boarded her first dragon boat with a Camelback water canteen on her back as if she were about to embark on a rigorous ocean voyage, and the president of the Dragon Boat Association teased her, asking, “Where do you think we’re going?”). Whatever it was, the women attracted an impressive duo to get them ready for their inaugural October race – Ken Wong as coach and Billy Heffernan as steersman. Both men are members of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association (PDBA) and the U.S. National Team, which won the 2007-2008 World Championship.
After a summer of practicing on the Schuylkill River, Team Relentless competed in their first race. With eight boats spanning the width of the river, crowds cheering, horns blaring, and drums beating, it was a breathless 500 meters that was over within 2 ½ minutes. “It was utterly amazing,” enthused Rogerson. Their goal was to win the women’s novice division. They did.
“It’s a rush, an adrenaline rush,” said Thea Stinnett, a team member. “That’s why it’s addictive.”
So they finished the race, and Rogerson and Forlenza assumed it was over – their crackpot dream of having a dragon boat team actually worked, and they did it, and it was done. Only it wasn’t. “We never set out to be paddle boaters,” said Rogerson. “We did this race, we thought it was a one-time thing, something to tell our kids about. But then people kept asking, ‘When is the next race?’” They had twenty-one interested women and two interested coaches, so the question became, how to continue?
The team took a break for the winter, and when they reconvened this spring, they had a new idea. Why go to Philadelphia to practice? Why travel from one river town to another? Why not practice here, on our own river? After a little asking around, the women triumphed again. Chris Bollenbacher, owner of The Landing and Fred’s Breakfast restaurants in New Hope, agreed to let the women use his backyard river space, as long as they got the dock, the boat, and the insurance. So they did. In April, they got a dock; in May, they bought a used boat from the PDBA. The forty-foot-long, 650-pound boat was delivered to Lambertville, and Forlenza and another teammate muscled that boat together across the current of the Delaware River to dock in its new home, behind Fred’s Breakfast.
And that’s how it all happened. The team has since inspired twenty-one more women to start a Relentless II team, and inspired some team members’ children to start a kids’ boat, comprised of Council Rock students, called “Rock the Boat,” which already won their first silver medal in competition.
But at the heart of the story is how twenty-one women found a new athletic obsession that motivates them, drives them, and nourishes them. “It tapped into something,” explained Rogerson. “You get to a certain age, and you don’t play competitive team sports anymore. The whole idea of dragon boat racing and why we thought women could do it is because you move the boat by being in unison, by being together. It’s not just about strength. You don’t have to be the biggest and strongest to win.” The women say they do it because it bonds them in a common, positive purpose.
“I think what’s so amazing is that we’re a team of like-minded women,” said Donna DiSimone, a team member. “The camaraderie is so special. We’re all similar, trying to balance life, kids, careers. This is such an amazing experience, competing in something we’re really good at.” Plus, the women point out that they don’t mind the intense workout of paddling.
“Look!” said Gettis with pride and glee, pushing up the sleeve of her t-shirt to reveal the beginnings of a Popeye-like bulge. “I have a bicep! Can you believe it?”
Did they mention that it’s fun? It’s like a healthy girls’ night out every Thursday and Sunday on the river. They laugh through their fevered paddling, crack jokes through their panting, and always keep smiling. That’s the attitude that keeps their coaches devoted to them. “It’s a fun sport, and frankly, with my own team, we always take it so seriously, and it’s work,” said Ken Wong. “But this? It’s fun. Seeing people come together as a group, seeing the pleasure and excitement they get, it’s just fun.”
The bi-weekly practices have become something that the women eagerly look forward to. “We move mountains to get to practice,” said Forlenza. “When you’re there, everything goes away for an hour-and-a-half on the water.”
Back on the river, practice is drawing to a close. The women sitting side by side have been paddling for over an hour. During a competition, their boat would boast its decorative dragon head and tail and a rhythmic drum. Tonight, however, the boat is unadorned, and the drummer at the front of the boat uses only her voice (leftover from her cheerleading days) to keep the beat and to bark encouragement. The women alternate quick strokes and long strokes, doing five-minute intervals that leave shoulders burning with the effort. As the last rays of sunlight cast a golden glow on the bridge above their heads and the sky turns a periwinkle gray, the boat slides into the dock. “Hi, Mom,” one boy calls from the riverbank, almost seeming to break the spell of the river. The team is back. They are moms again; they are wives again. They are chauffeurs and homework helpers and cupcake bakers and schedulers. But at least they had their time on the river. And they know they’ll be back soon.