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Coolray Field plays host to annual Awakening of the Dragon

Photo: David McGregor. Members of Shoaling Kung Fu do a presentation flanked by dragon boats during the Awakening of the Dragon on July 9 at Coolray Field.

Photo: David McGregor. Members of Shoaling Kung Fu do a presentation flanked by dragon boats during the Awakening of the Dragon on July 9 at Coolray Field.

BUFORD — Dragon boater Jackson Chang says there’s a bond forged by teammates on the water that grows stronger with each race.

“When you are paddling, you have this kinetic energy that transfers from the paddle through you to the lake and back into the boat,” said Chang, a veteran athlete of the sport.

Added Chang: “Once you’ve built that energy ... that energy stays with you.”

• What: 16th annual Dragon Boat Festival

• When: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 10

• Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Venue, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville

Participants of the annual Dragon Boat Festival get to exhibit that energy every year for thousands of people at Clarks Bridge racing venue in Hall County.

This year, however, Gwinnett County got a glimpse at the boats and culture that make the festival an annual attraction.

Hundreds showed up for the Awakening of the Dragon Ceremony at Coolray Field last weekend, where eight brand-new vessels were on display. The boats will be used during the Sept. 10 festival in Hall County.

A dragon boat is a thin, 39-foot vessel powered by a team of paddlers. Usually made of teak or fiberglass, the boats have dragon heads on the prow and tails on the stern.

Kristen Griswold of Gwinnett County found the boats to be “enchanting.”

She and husband, Robert, came out to Saturday’s inaugural Awakening of the Dragon Ceremony, which preceded a double-header at the Gwinnett Braves’ ballpark.

“She came to see the dragons; I came to see some baseball,” said Robert Griswold, pounding a fist into a beat-up outfielder’s glove.

Kristen Griswold squinted toward the infield, where three new dragon boats were on display.

“They’re very interesting,” she said. “I can’t believe they came all the way from Hong Kong ... it’s hard to imagine.”

It’s not hard to imagine for Chang, who has helped organize the Dragon Boat Festival for several years and will do so again in September for the 16th annual event.

Chang said he was pleased with the new boats on display Saturday at Coolray Field.

“They are great,” Chang said, adding that attendees also seemed to enjoy them.

Also popular was the Lion Dance, which is a costumed traditional Chinese performance art designed to mimic a lion’s movements.

Other performance arts at the event included Kung Fu exhibitions by Atlanta-area experts like Gary Mitchell.

Being a part of the Dragon Boat Festival, Mitchell said, is an honor.

“We love to perform here,” Mitchell said. “We love to see the continuance of this festival ... we love to see the whole sense of camaraderie this event brings.”

“The fact that Atlanta actually has a cultural basis enough to have a Dragon Boat Festival is really awesome,” Mitchell said. “A lot of cities don’t have things like this.”

Chang said the Dragon Boat Festival is big in Atlanta, but he hopes “to grow it” — the impetus behind Saturday’s efforts at Coolray Field.

“We want to introduce the Dragon Boat Festival to everybody,” Chang said. “We want to expand.”

Currently, the event on Lake Lanier plays host to 72 teams from all over the region.

Chang has participated in other similar events around the country, including the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York, which is held every August. The gathering has more than 100 teams.

As a former participant and current organizer, he hopes to see that kind of growth for Atlanta’s annual race.

Last Saturday’s event may have helped by introducing the sport to some who had never previously heard of it.

Like Natasha Lancaster, who came out with friend Tiffany Reid.

“It’s strange,” said Lancaster as she watched staffers assemble a brightly-colored costume for the lion dance. “It’s odd to see this stuff here in a baseball stadium, in the heart of our own kind of culture ... it’s cool though.”

Chang would agree.

“It’s a sport like no other,” he said. “I want everybody to know about it. I want to spread the word.”

For more information about dragon boats and the festival itself, visit www.dragonboatatlanta.com.

The history of Dragon Boats

The sport dates back some 2,000 years and has origins in an ancient Chinese legend. There was a well-loved statesman and poet by the name of Qu Yuan who lived in the Kingdom of Chu during the 4th century B.C.

Although he was a favorite of the people, he found himself banished by officials.

Unhappy and in despair, he roamed the countryside writing poetry about his love of the country and its people. Unable to bear his sorrow any longer, he drowned himself in a nearby river.

Local fisherman raced out in their boats in an attempt to save him but arrived too late. In order to lure fish away from the man, they beat the water with their paddles and tossed rice dumplings into the river.

The Chinese people have never forgotten Qu Yuan, thus was born a tradition that continues to this day.

Dragon boat races are a reenactment of the failed attempt to save Qu Yuan. The Dragon Boat Festival has deep cultural ties, evidenced by the ceremony and ritual surrounding the races.

The races are held in major metropolitan cities along the east coast including Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York.

Locally, the Hong Kong Information Center in Atlanta sponsors the event, which aims to “promote business and economic ties and foster a mutual understanding between the United States and Hong Kong.”