By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
West Windsor, N.J. >> As a youth dragon boat team paddles on a journey toward fitness, they also learn the importance of friendship and community.
The Pottstown Junior Dragon Warriors formed earlier this summer to provide the area’s youth with a unique way to stay physically active. The program is organized through The Schuylkill River Athletic Club, which is associated with the Pottstown Athletic Club and Pottstown CrossFit. A grant from the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation and additional contributions made the program possible.
“We are able to bring a diverse group of kids together and get them to work together as a team,” said Rob Matthews, owner of CrossFit and the athletic club.
The Junior Warriors competed in their first race Saturday at the annual Walgreens Mercer County Dragon Boat Festival in New Jersey. In a dragon boat competition, teams of up to 20 paddlers compete in three separate 500-meter races. Teams race in a long boat that is made to resemble a dragon, a Chinese tradition.
The young paddlers were excited to get their first taste of competition but even more eager to be able to spend the day with friends. Josh Keppley, 15, said he joined the Junior Warriors to get stronger at paddling but also to meet new people. The 16 kids that competed on Saturday spent the day playing, laughing and teasing one another. Regardless of their background, they had become a family united by fitness.
“They work great as a team,” said Vania Gollatz.
Gollatz trains the Junior Warriors and is also the co-captain of the adult Pottstown Dragon Warriors, a CrossFit women’s team. She said the youth mentor each other and help one another.
Lined up for their first race with life jackets on and paddles in hand, the kids shouted “Let’s go Juniors!” Team members also reminded everyone about the proper body position and stroke technique. Gollatz has been teaching the junior paddlers that their hands should be spread out wide therefore creating a “powerful U” shape.
“They want to have a nice strong hold of the paddle so when they drive it into the water they get the benefit of the mechanics of their bodies,” she said.
The youth team was ready to have fun at the race but also didn’t know what to expect. Nehemiah Figueroa, 15, said he was nervous about the team’s race since they would be competing against adults.
“It would be nice not to come in last place,” he said while laughing.
Although the Junior Warriors didn’t walk away from the festival with any medals, they did gain an experience that brought the team closer together. Matthews said he was very impressed with the kids’ stroke performance and form. At the end of their third race, Figueroa got his wish and the team finished ahead of another boat.
“That is an inspiration to watch,” said Andrea Hill, a member of the women’s Pottstown dragon boat team.
When the Junior Warriors weren’t having fun in their own races, they were cheering for the women’s team who also competed in Saturday’s festival. The adult team used the day to prepare for the upcoming Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival on Oct. 3. As the women paddled along Mercer Lake, the children encouraged them by chanting “We are Pottstown!”
And while the youth were cheering for Pottstown, other teams in the festival were cheering for the young athletes. The Junior Warriors even got a special announcement over the intercom for their efforts. Matthews said the children gained the notice of representatives from youth dragon boat associations and said their practices are paying off.
Over the summer, the youth paddled on the Schuylkill River in Pottstown two days a week and exercised at CrossFit every Thursday evening. Matthews said they lift weights, learn Olympic lifts and do foundational movements of CrossFit.
“Some of the kids actually move better than some of the adults,” he said.
Figueroa said through the youth paddling program, he’s learned more about what CrossFit actually is and that it’s a community of people.
“It’s just somewhere you can show up, workout, do what you have to do and it makes you better,” he said.
Keppley has been doing CrossFit for about five years and said it’s changed his life.
“I’ve probably lost about 30 pounds since I started CrossFit back in 2010,” he said.
Matthews said the youth paddling program has made it possible for children to experience an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Going into the colder months, the kids will start practicing on indoor rowing machines and continue strength training with hopes to start competing again in April.
To find out more about the youth team, visit the Facebook page www.facebook.com/PottstownDragonWarriors. Rob Matthews can also be contacted by emailing Rob.firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 610-327-1321.