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Slaying the Sport of Dragon Boat Racing

Florida's Team Leathernecks go from novice paddlers to making their mark as champions at age 60-plus

Team Leatherneck - dragon boat racing champs

— Courtesy of Gerry Sherman/Team Leathernecks

In the sport of dragon boat racing, age trumps youth for Team Leathernecks, a group of Florida retirees who have paddled their way to a national title and hope to make more waves.

The July victory is even more impressive because the team—whose average age is 68—began competing less than two years ago, with several new members coming onboard early this year. Now, they're a force to be reckoned with.

In September and October, they're racing at events in Orlando, Tampa and Deerfield Beach. Buoyed by global interest, the 2,500-year-old Chinese sport of dragon boat racing draws a festive fan following.

Half the Leathernecks—named after the protective straps that Revolutionary War soldiers wore in sword fights—are former Marines. Together with their spouses and friends, they won the 200-meter sprint in the grand masters division at the U.S. National Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn. They placed second in the 500-meter and 1,000-meter races. While this division accepts participants age 50 or older, a team with members in their 60s and 70s is unusual.

"We all really push each other," says captain Lee Cerovac, 66, a retired lieutenant colonel who flew F-4 jets during two tours of duty in Vietnam.

Rigorous training

In the competitive ranks of dragon boat racing, paddlers train rigorously for peak performance. The team paddles four times a week, as well as lifts weights and exercises with an aerobics instructor. Some members also take Zumba dance fitness classes. Everyone lives in The Villages, a retirement community about 50 miles northwest of Orlando.

So does Cerovac find the training schedule draining? "This is great fun," he says. "Are you kidding?"

"It gives us a sense of being almost reborn," says Jack Maiz, 65, a crash, fire and rescue man in the Vietnam War. "We're all doing things we never fathomed we could do."

Speed, stamina and synchronization are the hallmarks of the team's success.

"All Marines love to compete," says Gordon Gillis, 76, the oldest member since an 82-year-old left the team to care for his ailing wife. A three-time cancer survivor, Gillis served as a noncommissioned officer in the Korean War.

"As long as my muscles work," he adds, "I might as well use them rather than sit on my duff." During his radiation treatments this summer, he never missed practice, says his wife and fellow paddler, Chris Gillis, 60. They're one of three Leathernecks husband-and-wife team members.

Great social outlet

The group has about 30 members. A 42-foot fiberglass vessel—with a colorful dragon head in front and a tail in back—seats 20 paddlers, a drummer (who leads paddlers with a rhythmic beat) and a steerer. To compete in coed events, at least eight female paddlers must be onboard. Paddling in unison, they rush to the finish line. The fastest team wins.

But dragon boat racing isn't only for fierce competitors. At novice and recreational levels, it's a social outlet that fosters team building and promotes an alternative form of exercise.

"When we first started, we were reinventing the wheel," says former Marine Bob Kane, 72, previously a New York City fireman for 28 years. Now, he has eight Leatherneck trainees—five women and three men—under his wing.

Kane developed a paddle that hooks up to a weight machine and strengthens specific muscles for dragon boat racing. While tuning into his digital music player at the gym, he does 600 strokes nonstop on each side. His goal is 800.

Former Marine Warren Butt, 62, uses a computer program to assign seats based on members' strengths and weight. "Balancing the boat was a difficult task and took a long time to calculate manually," he explains.

Surprise to younger competitors

This team is all about strategy and hard work. In many races, competitors are not grouped by age, so the Leathernecks often face opponents in their 20s and 30s. "When we race these young kids and we beat them, they're just flabbergasted," says breast cancer survivor Marguerite Muller, 63.

They've become the boat to beat. "We started winning, and we liked the taste of winning," says Fred Frederiksen, 66, who received a Purple Heart after a booby trap wounded his left leg in Vietnam.

Along with his wife, Pam Frederiksen, 63, he joined Team Leathernecks at the outset in January 2009. "We get so much approval from young people that it makes us feel good," she says. "Our kids just love that we go out and do so much."

And now the Leathernecks even have a dragon boat to call their own. After paying for a costly rental, they ordered a $7,500 model from China. It arrived in June.

Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.

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