For those of you who’ve no idea what dragon boating is, neither did I; and the team championing this sport is known as the KL Barbarians. They’re a dedicated group of eighty registered members who faithfully travel to and from Putrajaya every Saturday to train as a team. If that didn’t wow you, they were the only team to have represented Malaysia at the Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) in Adelaide just a couple of months ago.
A privileged opportunity presented itself and we were invited to join them as they practiced for an upcoming race in Melaka. It was a fine crisp morning when we arrived at the marina and observed as the members of KL Barbarians gradually piled in. There was a strong sense of camaraderie in the air and everyone got along really well. I sat down with team captain, Lesley, and vice captain, Amran, and got to learn more about the sport from their perspectives and how going the extra mile is part and parcel of existing in the team.
How were the KL Barbarians formed?
L: Lee Shih, who is the founder of our team, works in a law firm called SKRINE that has their own dragon boat team. After paddling with them for several years, he wanted to share this sport with other people and the first group of people he reached out to were lawyers. This was back in 2011 and now five years on, you’ll find the team is now made up of people from different backgrounds and professions. We started as being the only open-corporate dragon boat team in Kuala Lumpur, but since then a few others have started up as well.
You guys recently came back from the Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) in Adelaide. Why was this race such a big deal?
L: When the team first heard about CCWC, we promised ourselves that we would compete in it one day. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do as a team, and it was a great milestone to accomplish especially this year as the KL Barbarians turn five. CCWC is a big deal because it’s the pinnacle for all dragon boat clubs in the world where the best of the best teams go to compete. You can say it’s equivalent to the FIFA World Cup for football.
A: In order to qualify for the CCWC, you must first earn your place in the competition. We were really lucky because no other teams from Malaysia wanted to go, so we became the sole representative of the country without actually having to compete with other local clubs. Hopefully the dragon boat community in Malaysia will grow to be more competitive and we’ll have to compete for a spot at the next CCWC.
"Each time we come out of a race, there’s this determination to do better than before, even if it’s tweaking our technique by a little bit - there is always room for improvement."
Take us back to your first race.
L: When the team was first formed, our founder enrolled us in a race that was happening just 10 weeks later. There weren’t any expectations, he just wanted to see how we would fare in a competition. There were 20 of us who trained consistently and we won the gold medal! It’s after your first race that you finally realise all the hours you put into training and how it’s distilled into just that few minutes of racing. You also begin to recognise the areas in which you need to improve to become more effective in your paddling.
What’s your training regime like?
L: We try to break it up into four general components. The first is technique, followed by strength, endurance and lastly race sets. Over the span of a season (which is usually 6 months), we build on these four things. We spend about a month emphasising on techniques whether it’s correcting your form, working on your stroke and reach, and everything else relating to your efficiency. As for enhancing our strength, we attach tyres to the boats to give it some drag so that everyone would need to put in that extra manpower to move the boat. When it comes to endurance, it’s all about conditioning your body to long distances. One of the most memorable endurance sessions we’ve had is paddling a 10km loop around the lake that took us about 59 minutes to complete. Race sets are where we take the time to practice our strategies so that by the time a race comes about, your body is already prepared for what’s about to take place.
The fact that you’re doing all of this out of passion for this sport is inspiring. What drives you to go the extra mile?
A: When we first started out, I never expected to win a gold medal. After our first race, I realised that we can achieve a lot as a team when we work together. Each time we come out of a race, there’s this determination to do better than before, even if it’s tweaking our technique by a little bit - there is always room for improvement.
L: That feeling stems from the fact that dragon boat races are so short that you literally win or lose by 0.2 of a second. When you look at the official time, you sometimes wished you would’ve just pulled your strokes harder or that you should’ve held your paddle tighter. It’s that feeling that makes you want to improve your technique, and when you return for the following race, it’s making sure that you don’t repeat the same mistake. More importantly, it’s the experience that we face together. We encounter new obstacles for every race that we participate in, and after that we get together to debrief and pick out a lesson we’ve learned so as to improve ourselves.
Teamwork is definitely the core foundation of the group’s success, not only during a race but in other aspects of this sport as well. How does the team pull together both physically and mentally?
L: There has to be a common direction. Everyone in the team must want to improve and it's this initiative that brings us together to move as a unit. Only by everyone coming together as a team that the boat is able to move forward. For those running a team, always have your group’s best interest at heart. Make sure you consider every factor and relevant considerations before making a decision, and even after the deliberations you still feel that this particular method is the best way forward, then bite the bullet and stand by it. None of us here has ever led a dragon boat team before so we don’t know what the future is like, we're just taking things one step at a time.
What are some of the challenges you face managing a team?
L: The KL Barbarians is a self-sustaining team and we are financially supported solely through our members. We do struggle with making decisions about certain matters, whether it’s simply going for races or attending events - we have to reflect on our finances to see if we are able to afford it. Logistics is another issue for us; because Putrajaya is so far away, we can’t really practice as much as we want to during the weekdays; we're limited to just the weekends. However, we do try to supplement our training with land drills. We go to a park at Damansara Heights on Tuesday and Thursday nights to build on our strength, fitness and conditioning so that when we get to the lake on Saturday, we can purely focus on our paddling technique and synchronisation.
A: Not to complain about the marina, but the boats aren’t in the best conditions as well. For a long period of time, there were only two boats that we could use because the rest were leaking. We’re really limited in our resources by what we can and cannot use.
There are some of those out there who may be thinking “sounds interesting but I have no time”. What advice can you give to those with a day job but also want to participate in sports professionally?
A: I don’t want to sound cliche, but you can always make time if you really want to do it. Lesley goes to the gym everyday at 6am so it goes to show that if you really are determined to do it, it shouldn’t be a problem.
L: Whatever effort you’re about to get involved in, let it be from the heart. What we do, it’s not a job and we don’t treat it like one. All of us in the team have our regular day jobs, but when it comes to dragon boating we do it to the best of our ability because we enjoy it and we want the team to grow and flourish.
"Everyone in the team must want to improve and it's this initiative that brings us together to move as a unit."
While it was all a very exciting experience, the element of team unison shouts louder than everything else. Each stroke of the paddle and beat of the drum translate a level of team spirit that surpasses the sport itself. It’s the respect and bond between teammates and the drive for excellence that push these individuals to do more than just attend practice every Saturday. They’ve already accomplished so much as a team, and I really hope to see them compete at the 2018 CCWC in Hungary. Go Barbarians!
#gotheextramile is a collaboration series with Ash Be Nimble to feature Malaysian fitness heroes who run that extra mile, wake up that extra hour earlier and endure that very last burpee. Together, we hope to inspire many more young spirits to work hard, dream big and never quit. For more similar stories, check out our hashtag #gotheextramile.
"Whatever effort you’re about to get involved in, let it be from the heart."