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Local Dragon Boat Racer Wins National Championship

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Santa Barbaran Leslie Crandell, who will be the U.S. team captain for the 2009 world championships.

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Standardized dragon boats are 42 feet long and narrow, powered by 10 rows of two paddlers. A drummer sits in the front, drumming out a paddle cadence. The boats have a dragon’s head and tail at either end. (Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival photo)

When a friend called to ask if she would be interested in dragon racing, Leslie Crandell politely denied the request. She wasn’t into cars, and especially not drag racing.

“I didn’t even know the sport existed,” Crandell said of that confusing first invitation to race traditional Chinese dragon boats. Six years later, she has represented the United States all over the world, including at World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Poland, Shanghai and Sydney.

Standardized dragon boats are 42 feet long and narrow, powered by 10 rows of two paddlers. A drummer sits in the front, drumming out a paddle cadence, and a steersman stands in the back with a long oar. The boats are adorned with a dragon’s head and tail at either end. 

“Instead of a really long oar, I have a paddle that’s about 50 inches long,” Crandell said. “You use your whole body. My whole body will go all the way down to the gunnel, and then I sit back up again.”

The journey to competitive paddling has been remarkable for Crandell, who is a network security analyst and self-proclaimed nerd.

It is laced with adventure and tragedy, poetically leading to where she is today: U.S. national champion and team captain in the August 2009 WDBRC in Prague.

A native Santa Barbaran and natural athlete, Crandell played basketball for Stanford University in the 1980s, when her team won the NCAA Championship. There was no WNBA at the time, so women who wanted to play professionally had to travel to other countries.

“You could play in Italy, you could play in Japan, you could play in Greece, but the only place that paid regularly was Japan,” said Crandell, who played professionally for the Bank of Tokyo team in the Japan League for three years.

Proud father Larry Crandell says he has loved watching Leslie play basketball since she was 9 years old. “She lives life with zest,” he said of his daughter.

Shortly after returning home to Santa Barbara to be with her family, Leslie Crandell suffered a serious back injury that restricted her to a walker. As part of her therapy, she walked along the beach and would watch paddlers in outrigger canoes, thinking, “I wish I could do that just once.”

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Leslie Crandell
Crandell’s wish came true in 1996 when neighbors and Ka Nai’a Outrigger Canoe Club coaches Mike and Linda Ofner gave her the chance to try it out.

“I was taking pain medication and I couldn’t move my legs properly, so Mike picked me up and carried me across the sand,” Crandell said. 

Outrigger paddling soon became a vital part of Crandell’s physical therapy. She began racing competitively all over the world, including the 41-mile Molokai Crossing World Championship, which challenges racers to traverse the Ka’iwi Channel from Molokai to Oahu.

When a friend invited her to join the dragon boating national team in July 2002, set to compete in the WDBRC in Poland in August 2003, Crandell was stunned. “I thought, it’s an Asian sport, there’s a world championship in Poland and you want an outrigger paddler to come?”

After a few months of commuting to San Diego for practices with the San Diego Dragon Boat Team, Crandell paddled for the U.S. women’s premier team in Poland and took home a silver medal for the division.

She was hooked.

The official U.S. National Championship for Dragon Boating was held in Long Beach on July 25-27 to determine the team to represent the nation in Prague. The best coaches in the nation gather the strongest paddlers they can find to represent their team for the nationals. 

Crandell said the format this year was similar to an NBA All-star game: Two “superteams” battled it out from the East and West coasts, competing to win overall in four races.

“This is the first year I was actually on the crew that won the nationals. The other years were all on someone else’s racing, and I got added on later,” said Crandell, who soon will be racing in her fourth WDBRC, this time as team captain. 

The national team races in divisions. Crandell most likely will race for both the premier women’s team in Prague, which has no age restriction, and the senior women’s team.

Fellow Santa Barbaran Maria Fidler is also a national champion this year, which is an impressive representation considering paddlers can’t practice here. Ideal arenas are on protected waterways, so San Diego’s bay is perfect.

Although competition seems to be in her blood — this is Crandell’s third sport in which she has won a national championship — the camaraderie between countries is where her heart is.

“If there’s no other reason for all this nonsense, it’s the fact that people from thousands of miles away can learn to be supportive of each other and just accept first and worry about the differences later,” she said. “That is why sport should exist, that is the best of it.”

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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