Enter the Dragon: From Manitoba
Dragon boating, a team sport that includes elements of power, speed, synchronization, and endurance, was the sport chosen by a group of Muslim girls to compete in on September 8th and 9th, 2017. The team originated in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and were coached for a few months to compete for the event.
In Spring 2017, a group of Muslim girls started dragon boat practices as a group activity. By September 2017, they had formed a team that had participated in a dragon boat challenge in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The dragon boat festival supports Canadian Cancer Society, by participants pledging money and raising funds. One in two Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime. Exercise, like dragon boating, not only assists with overall health and fitness, but also in cancer prevention. This was an important cause to the girls, as some of them have lost relatives to cancer.
The girls’ team was organized by a veteran member of the Winnipeg Muslim community, Zulaikha Mustapha, who has helped organize sports for Muslim children and women for decades. Over the years, she has helped to organize lessons in swimming, martial arts, soccer and more, but a dragon boat team for Muslim girls has been a first in the Winnipeg community.
The team consisted of girls from many backgrounds, including three recent refugees from Syria. Others have deep roots in Canada for generations, including Mennonite and French-Canadian heritage. Even with such diverse ethnic backgrounds, the team was able to work well together.
At first it was not intended for them to compete. Sakina Salem, one of the mothers, who is of French Canadian background, said it started out as a fun outing and a way to stay active. The shyness between the team members when they first met melted away as they improved their skills during training sessions.
“It was great fun watching and being in the boat with the girls from the beginning to the end. From not knowing how to paddle in sync and making the boat wobble down the river to gliding the surface with grace. As for being a part of organizing this for the girls, I must say that Zuliakha Mustapha put forth her ‘savoir faire’ as I tagged along learning the ropes,” Sakina Salem shared her thoughts.
They went from just a thought, to meetings, organizing, signing up, fundraising, phone calls and consistent practice on the water, to a fine and motivated group of girls who wanted to win the race.
Starting practices in spring 2017, they took a break for Ramadan and had 2 practices a week during July and August. On September 8th and 9th, the girls participated in two races, one 200m and one 500m, given support from family, friends, and other teams.
“Dragon boating was a great experience and I’ve learned a lot through paddling and keeping the team together with counts. I highly recommend this sport to all young adults as a time to exercise your muscles and have fun with the people around you!” Leen Aljindi, who is thirteen years old and the team drummer gave her thoughts on this experience.
Zainab Ali, a member of the team, felt the same way, stating that dragon boating helped her learn patience and teamwork.
“The girls came quite a long way this summer, I really wasn’t expecting that sort of change from them. When Coach Paige and I started coaching the girls in the spring, our goal was to have fun, paddling fast came second. When we decided to enter the girls in the September Dragon Boat Challenge, our goal again was not to paddle fast, but to get the girls to work together in an environment they hadn’t had much experience in,” Coach Jordie Smallwood from the Manitoba Canoe and Kayak Centre told us.
“What happened next surprised myself. Paige and I think the girls did well. As the weeks went by, we started to see a real change in the girls’ skills as paddlers. We went from going for a fun paddle to going out for hard workouts, and the girls began to understand what it meant to train as a group. The biggest change was the week we took the girls to the BDI, that was a fun and different experience for everyone. On the way, back I remember saying to the girls ‘Paige and I can talk all day about technique and how to paddle, but when it comes down to race day, you girls have to want it and we can not teach you that’. The weeks that followed were amazing, the girls made massive improvements in their overall paddling technique.
“On the competition night, as we pushed off the dock and took our first couple of strokes, I couldn’t help thinking of the amazing improvements these girls had made, and with that we flew down the course, breaking every expectation, I had for the girls. The first race on the Saturday was amazing as well, again breaking every expectation I had, and though we did not get the result we were looking for in the final, I think the girls learned some valuable lessons. I’m very proud of the girls, they did amazingly for their first ever dragon boat competition. Paige and I could not be happier with all the improvement they’ve made over the summer.”
Fifteen-year-old Dana Chehadeh had this to say:
“It was fun to try dragon boating. Learning a new sport is great, and trying it with the girls is even better. If we were to do to again next year, I would be totally up to it.”
The girls wanted to continue to challenge themselves in other ways, in terms of sports, especially dragon boating. They would like Muslim youth from all communities to have similar experiences. With the competition finished, not only did they learn to work well together and enhance their skills, they were able to create strong friendships that will last them a lifetime.
This article has been co-written by Mariam Kilany:
“Mariam Kilany is a high school student with ambitions to empower Muslims with the power of writing. She enjoys reading books and writing them and plans to follow in her father’s footsteps by becoming a successful doctor and a novelist.”
(All photos courtesy of Amna Burki)