Though Pemberton's talented young paddlers were pressed and passed by their archrivals in their final dragon boating race before the main event of the season at this weekend's (June 19 and 20) Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival, coach Hugh Fisher believes his athletes will be ready for the big race when it's time to defend the junior title they've captured for 11 straight years.
One boat comprised of Laoyam Eagles and Falcons, the A and B crews in Pemberton's youth dragon boating program, headed to Vancouver's False Creek for the Dragon Zone 500-metre Regatta on June 6.
The crew wound up finishing second in their final of three races to their frequent rivals from Eric Hamber Secondary School, trailing by what Fisher called "quite a sizeable gap."
"Our guys will have their work cut out for them this year," Fisher said.
But the coach and Olympic champion kayaker added that the single Pemberton boat included many new paddlers getting their first tastes of racing to build them up for the future, as the program saw a significant group of Grade 12 girls graduate after last season and the across-the-board experience has been depleted.
A number of Grade 8 girls have stepped up strongly, though, and there's still plenty of experience on the boys side, including the powerful and hardworking George McLeod, Fisher said.
There's an element of strategy in the boat compositions, too: You don't want to show all of your strongest paddlers in the early races, Fisher noted.
"We work very hard and have one really important goal in mind," he said, adding that his crews are on track for Alcan.
"Our guys will be strong on the day," he said.
Last season, Pemberton crews lost an early-season race to a team from Eric Hamber, but somehow the Hamber crew faded in the Alcan junior final and dropped back while the Eagles swept to an exciting 11th straight win.
Though the Eagles have claimed 11 straight junior titles at the prestigious Alcan festival, which draws more than 100,000 people and 180 teams to False Creek, Fisher said his primary goal for his teams is to have them paddle they best they can, with hopes of getting a bit faster each year.
"They're right there with all our past teams," he said, but he added that he's not certain what crews might be coming to the Alcan festival from the U.S. or elsewhere in Canada.
Pemberton will also enter crews in the Open Mixed, Women's and Men's events at the Alcan festival, with a powerful complement of female paddlers looking to repeat their success of last year.
The Pemberton women finished second in their 2009 final and in their thrilling but controversial Guts and Glory race. This season, the team is in the unusual situation of having a surplus of powerful female adult paddlers, leading to time trials held last weekend to determine who will race at Alcan.
"They're looking really, really strong again," Fisher said.
Fisher said he also expects to send a full slate of boats to the Canadian National Dragon Boat Championships, which are scheduled in Whistler on July 3 and 4 alongside the third annual Whistler Dragon Boat Festival at Rainbow Park on Alta Lake. For more information on this fun event, check out www.whistlerdragonboat.com.
Pemberton paddlers will also comprise the Zone 5 team entering the paddling events at the upcoming B.C. Summer Games, as a small but dedicated group including the likes of Matthew Tuck and Dalton Pehota has been putting in extra practice time on Monday and Thursday mornings to prepare for those events.