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From ordinary to extraordinary

Northwoods woman represents the US at world dragon boat championships

December 06, 2019 by Delaney FitzPatrick

Joannie Morgan says she has been average her whole life. She grew up the Northwoods, attended Arbor Vitae-Woodruff Elementary and Lakeland Union High School and later, raised her own family a mere 2.5 miles from her childhood home.  

She was never one for organized sport, instead opting for waterskiing, biking or cross country skiing. In her mid-30s she picked up running, doing a few 5Ks and half-marathons, but her competitive spirit was never truly sparked.

Everything changed when she discovered dragon boat racing. Morgan remembers the day, July 11, 2017, as if it were yesterday. 

“I was hooked after one practice,” she said.

Little did she know that just 774 days later, she would be wearing the red, white and blue uniform of the USA, gripping her paddle in anticipation as her dragon boat bobbed in the waters of the Marb-Pra-Chan reservoir in Thailand. At the announcer’s call, she pushed her paddle down into the water, keeping pace with her team as they raced against the world’s best.

She would return to the United States with three golds, two silvers and one bronze.

Her life was far from average.

Joining the club

Many Americans have never heard of dragon boat racing, but Minocqua locals have grown accustomed to seeing the town’s own Island City team practicing on Lake Minocqua from spring to fall.

A dragon boat is a canoe-like watercraft featuring a carved dragon head at the prow and a tail at the stern. Standard dragon boats carry 22 people: 20 paddlers, one steersman and one drummer. 

The sport’s origins date back to China in 4th century B.C., finally hitting the shores of North America in 1983 when Chinese representatives recruited the U.S. men’s crew team for a world dragon boat competition in Hong Kong, all expenses paid. 

Since then, the sport has spread throughout the U.S., becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Minocqua entered the world of dragon boat racing in 2016 thanks to the Howard Young Foundation (HYF), which bought the area’s first, and only, dragon boat. 

This past August, the town of Minocqua, in partnership with the HYF, hosted its fourth annual Dragon Boat Festival, attracting over 20 teams from around the upper midwest.

It was during the second annual festival in 2017 that Morgan got her first taste of competition, paddling with the Island City team.

Though she had fun at the local event, she was anxious for a greater challenge. 

The next year, she started traveling with the Island City team to various competitions throughout Wisconsin. The team made its first long-distance trip last November to Florida where they competed in a 10-person boat and won gold at the Lake Hernando Dragon Boat Festival. 

“We went down there and we won,” Morgan recalled. “We had a great experience.”

Team coach Mike Mondrall, an experienced dragon boat racer, asked a few women if they’d considered trying out as individuals to represent Team USA at the 14th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships, which takes place every two years. Mondrall himself had previously raced for Team USA and thought a few of the women had a shot at qualifying, including Morgan.

Morgan decided to sign up for the process, which involved attending a number of camps throughout the country between December and April leading up to the championships. 

“You can put as much into it as you want to,” she explained. “Some people maybe only went to one or two camps.”

Training camps to qualify were open to anyone and usually involved a weekend or sometimes a full week of dragon boat practice and a few time trials. 

From the pool of women in the Senior B division, ages 50-59, who attended the camps, only 36 would be selected.

Making the team

Morgan understood prior to the first camp that she was an underdog. She was less experienced than many of the other paddlers, some of whom were former Team USA members.

Consequently, she had to learn about new equipment and techniques quickly. 

One of her first challenges was to become acquainted with an OC1, or outrigger canoe, which is a narrow, one-person boat with a lateral support float. The OC1 is utilized by coaches for time trials to measure an individual athlete’s fitness.

Morgan received a single lesson on an OC1 before the first camp in Miami last December, with the time trial there being the second time she had ever sat in an OC1. Her inexperience didn’t seem to play a large factor, as she put up the second fastest time of all the women.

At her next camp in Tampa, she had to learn a new paddling stroke: the D stroke instead of the A stroke, which is what she used with the Island City team. Once again, she adapted with ease.

When she wasn’t at camp, Morgan dedicated herself to resourceful training, since training for a watersport is a large challenge during Northwoods’ winters. 

“We don’t have any open water up here ... so that was kind of a handicap,” Morgan said, explaining that she “really got to be friendly” with her Concept2 rowing machine. “There were frustrating times because there was no indication of if you were on the team.”

Despite these limitations, Morgan triumphed. Her name was among the first 10 women selected to the U.S. Senior B Women team.

But the hard work was only just beginning. Now that she was an official team member, she was required to attend additional camps, which involved more time trials to determine which boat each paddler would be assigned to for the races. 

Team USA entered two boats in the championships: a standard 22-person boat and a shorter 12-person boat. The faster women were chosen for the standard boat. Morgan made the cut.

Her next stop: Thailand.

The opportunity of a lifetime

The 14th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships took place Aug. 20-25 at the Marb-Pra-Chan reservoir in Thailand.

The championships drew competition from close to 30 nations around the world, including China, Russia, Sweden and Iran. 

Each day was packed with races of different age divisions and boat sizes across four distances: 200 meters, 500 meters, 1,000 meters and 2,000 meters.

Prior to Thailand, Morgan and the rest of the U.S. Senior B Women team had never paddled as a complete group. 

Luckily, it didn’t take long for them to fall into rhythm with one another. 

“It all came together on race day,” Morgan said.

In their very first race, Morgan and Team USA emerged victorious, beating the Canadian team by less than four seconds in the Senior B Women 2000m. 

The early momentum carried the team through the rest of the championships as they went on to win two more golds in the 1000m and 500m and a bronze in the 200m.

Morgan said this type of success for Team USA in her age division is unheard of. 

“Accepting our medals on the podium was very emotional. Standing together as a team while listening to the national anthem, teammates singing along, (was) a truly moving experience,” she said. “We just had a spectacular team.”

Morgan said the energy and intensity of the championships was unlike anything she’d experienced before.

“When we would get done with the races, I never had paddled so hard in my life,” she said. “I gave totally more than 100% each race.”

Morgan said although she had some nerves going into races, she mostly felt excited. She said the real stress had taken place during the qualifying process; once she got to the startline with her teammates in Thailand, she was simply eager to see what they could accomplish. 

“They were such solid paddlers,” she said of her teammates. “They were all focused, competitive women.”

Morgan also raced the 200m and 500m on the mixed team, which included men and women in her age group. The team came back with two silvers. 

Though she was proud of her teams’ accomplishments, what Morgan truly cherished about the experience were the new friendships she built. 

“I will never forget the wonderful people I met along my journey and I hope we will paddle again soon,” she said.

The next generation

Morgan has developed a deep passion for dragon boat racing in the two years since she began. The opportunities the sport has afforded her and the people she has met along the way have inspired her to establish and coach Minocqua’s first dragon boat youth team.

Morgan forsees the team as being open to both boys and girls, ages 15 to early 20s.

“There is already a successful women’s team in Minocqua,” she said, referencing the Island City team. “Starting a youth team would offer an entirely different sport that is not currently being offered in the schools.”

The decision for her just makes sense. 

“We have this beautiful water. We are actually fortunate enough to have a boat. Most communities don’t even have a boat,” she said. “I think it’s worth a shot.”

Morgan’s idea is slowly being realized. She has been in discussion with the HYF about using their boat and she plans to have an informational meeting this coming April. Depending on boat access and team members’ schedules, she would like to have practices on the boat at least twice a week during the season. 

“I would do it more,” she said. “If we could fit it into the schedule three days a week, that would be wonderful.”

For more information on the youth team, contact Morgan at [email protected]

Delaney FitzPatrick may be reached via email at [email protected]

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