Franklin Park couple takes flight with dragon boats

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

With a simple invitation, Jim Robertson of Franklin Park got hooked on the sport of dragon boat racing.

In 2005, Judy, his wife and a social worker, fell in love with this team-building activity as part of her work with Communities in Action for Peace. The University of Pittsburgh-related organization offers programs that aim to promote healthy communities by reducing violence.

“I said to Jim, ‘Come on down,'” she said. “Now, we're addicted.”

The Robertsons' new sport has kept them fit, and this summer, it gave them the opportunity to take part in the International Dragon Boat Federation's World Dragon Boat Championship in Szeged, Hungary. They both qualified for the Senior C team for members older than 60.

“We loved Hungary,” Judy, 72, said. “The people were nice, and the food was good. It was a lovely venue.”

Paddlers Natalie Thomas and Natacha De Genna, who trained with them, won silver medals with their age group's team. The Robertsons' team earned three bronze medals. The 44 paddlers for the American team came from all parts of the country to compete with others from Australia and Canada — two powerhouses — plus China and many others.

“This is the second-largest participatory sport in the world,” Jim said. “Soccer is first. It's a big sport in China. That says it.”

A dragon boat uses 18 to 20 people to propel the watercraft, a helmsman to maneuver the boat and a drummer to set the rhythm for the paddlers. The sport depends on coordinated movements inside each of the dragon-shaped vessels.

Locally, the Robertsons race as part of The Pittsburgh Paddlefish.

During the racing season, which lasts from March through November, the couple, who have been married for 48 years, work out three times a week in 90-minute sessions from the Three Rivers Rowing Association boathouse in Millvale.

Because the paddling strokes are the same, they use an outrigger canoe for practice. In the winter, the husband and wife lift weights and do aerobics. Jim also coaches in the Paddlers for Peace Youth Dragon Boat League and gets his team ready for nationwide competitions.

“You paddle through your abs,” said Jim, 73, adding that his preparations for the world championship enabled him to lose 30 pounds.

Dragon boating participants don't have to be big and muscular, he explained. Small paddlers put less weight in the boat.

The competition depends on all the same skills that dragon boating students first learn. “They work together,” said Jim, “and learn that if they don't paddle together, you don't win.”

The Paddlers for Peace group begins its activities in May, and paddlers, ages 12 through 18, come in all shapes and sizes.

“They may be afraid of the water, but when they start going fast, they like that,” Judy said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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