TEAM CITGO IS UNDEFEATED AFTER FIVE YEARS OF THE LOCAL DRAGON BOAT RACE. WHAT’S THEIR SECRET?
By Brad Goins
The sixth annual Dragon Boat Race will take place on Saturday, April 28. The event debuted in the Lake Area in 2013, and Team Citgo has emerged victorious in each of the previous five years of the races. I talked to a few members of the team to try to discover the secrets of their success.
Light Clean Products Manager Mandy Michalko approached the team’s winning ways with a light tone: “No pressure. But yes, we’ve been very fortunate the last few years.”
One thing I learned from Michalko is that, when it comes to technique, rowing is a big, big theme.
“We’re very dedicated to rowing.” She explains that all 20 rowers in the long, canoe-shaped boat must row in sync if the boat is to travel in a straight line.
“Having to paddle together is not an easy challenge,” says Michalko. Her teammates (and all boat race contestants) help themselves in this endeavor by putting a drummer in the front of the boat. The drummer beats out the tempo in which the rowers should row. The drummer sets the pace. The drummer is usually a small person, perhaps for the purpose of reducing the drag in the front of the boat.
Michalko doesn’t look around during races; she says she’s concentrated entirely on the rowing. She says she and every other team member is “just paddling as hard as [they] can.”
The competing teams get assistance from the 22 Dragons company, which brings in all the racing boats and handles all the timing and the placement of the racing buoys. 22 Dragons gives each team a steersman; this person, who is placed in the back of the boat, controls the boat’s direction so that team members can focus on rowing.
To win, a team must be the first to cross the finish line, which lies 600 feet from the starting point. Boats race in groups of three. Each participant must wear a life jacket throughout the race.
I was surprised when Michalko told me that long hours of practice aren’t part of the winning formula. I assume that long hours were put in at some point in the past. But, says Michalko, “now that we’ve done it so much, we’ve don’t practice all that much. We’ve shifted to doing it for fun.”
Practicing to build strength is not necessarily going to benefit a team, says Brent Mayo, process engineering supervisor at Citgo. “You can have a lot of strong people paddling,” says Mayo. But if they’re not paddling in sync, the crew may just become disorganized. “A weaker group of people can go faster if they’re paddling together.”
A second major element of the Team Citgo’s winning formula is communication.
“There’s a lot of communication in the boat,” says Mayo. “If a team all stays together [while rowing], that is not an accident.”
Team members must become acquainted with what Mayo calls “the communication sequence.” For instance, one sequence might go like this:
• 5 slow rows, followed by
• 5 medium power rows, and
• 5 fast rows.
“There’s almost a lingo,” says Mayo. Experienced rowers will learn the various sequences and become accustomed to putting them into play. If team members are familiar with the drill, “nobody gets surprised by a change” in orders about how to row during the race.
Sequences and single orders originate from the steersman in the back of the boat, who signals them to the drummer in the front. At the right time, the drummer yells out the order in a voice loud enough that all the rowers can hear it. In so doing, he helps the team avoid the problematic occasions when “the front of the boat doesn’t know what the back is doing,” in Mayo’s words. And the situation isn’t helped any by the fact that “on race day, it’s hard to hear people.”
It’s a great help that each team gets to practice taking orders from its steersman on the day before the race. And of course, the more team members who’ve had experience with following orders in the past, the more likely it is that the team will get in a productive groove.
Following orders can prevent rowers from lapsing into the state of simply rowing at the same pace as the person closest to them — another problem in the making.
Rowers are generally expected to pull the oars out of the water when they’re in line with the rower’s hips. Of course, the further forward the rower can move the oar before he puts it back in the water, the more pull he will get. The order “medium-power” tells the rower to lean forward and go for a power pull.
An order that’s often given midway through the race is the “power call.” “People are getting tired,” says Mayo. “They’re not pulling.” A “power call” reminds rowers to harness their concentration and focus on their strokes.
“Good communication has been a strength” for the Citgo team, says Mayo.
Other Strong Suits
And then there’s the size of the pool.
“We’re fortunate to have so many employees,” says Michalko. “We have 1,300 [Citgo employees] to choose from.”
Of course, not every employee is eligible to compete in every race. Michalko says at times, a would-be competitor has to skip a race for as simple a reason as the fact that he’s scheduled for work on race day.
Michalko herself has had to miss a race. But, she says, “I’m thankful I’ve gotten to compete in it as much as I have.”
In the first couple of years of competition, the Citgo team had a turnover rate of 50 percent. But with each year that passed, more of the employees who did join the team had participated in the race at some time in the past, and often more than once.
“We now have returning people who’ve raced before,” says Mayo. “It’s such a benefit to have people who’ve been in it before.” Mayo has now participated in the race five times.
There’s another advantage, and it’s a big one: getting a fast start. “Starting fast is often the difference between winning and losing,” says Mayo.
A Team Sport
What about competitiveness? “We’re all relatively competitive,” says Michalko.
As for Mayo, he may be more than just relatively competitive. He has a history of participating in team sports. And he thinks the Dragon Boat Race is a great opportunity for those with backgrounds like his.
“I enjoy team sports,” he says. “When you get older, there are not a lot of avenues” for that sort of sporting. The Dragon Boat Race meets the need.
Those on the Citgo crew who are in the team sports frame of mind feel that “they’ve got to work together,” says Mayo. “And there’s an emotional reward” for doing that.
‘They Tend To Talk Smack’
Team Citgo has dominated the Dragon Boat races for five straight years. Surely, after all this time, some other team must have put targets on the Citgo team members’ backs.
Michalko isn’t so sure. “I would think that teams are after us,” she says. “They tend to talk smack. But we don’t know [for sure].”
Years of hard rowing haven’t diminished Michalko’s enthusiasm for the Dragon Boat Race.
“It’s such a fun day. I just enjoy being on the water … I’m excited about it. I hope it continues to grow.”
She notes that the crowd for the race now numbers at several hundred. And the number of boats participating has gradually grown from 10 to 30 over the years.
“It’s a really neat event to watch. It’s definitely a one of a kind event.”
A large part of Michalko’s enthusiasm is her great dedication to the cause that’s benefited by the race: the Children’s Miracle Network. It’s a cause Michalko first started supporting during her school years at McNeese. Her commitment to the cause seems to be as strong as ever.
If you’d like to donate to any team or individual in the Dragon Boat Race, you can go to pledgereg.com and search for the term “Dragon.”
The sixth annual Dragon Boat Race will take place Saturday, April 28, at 8 am at the Lake Charles Civic Center. Christus St. Patrick Hospital will host the event. For more information, call 430-5353.