Two women who never had even heard of dragon boat racing just a few years ago have become so skilled that they now are official fire-breathing members of Dragon Boat Team USA.

Lori Freit-Hammes of West Salem says she didn’t know much beyond which end of a paddle is which when she became immersed in dragon boating five years ago. Sue Karpinski of Trempealeau already was an intrepid canoeist, but dragon-challenged when Freit-Hammes kinda-sorta trapped her into it two years later.

As members of the national team, Freit-Hammes and Karpinski will head to the birthplace of dragon boating next month to compete in the world championships in China.

Being onto the national team wasn’t as easy as falling off a log, as both Freit-Hammes and Karpinski discovered during hundreds — perhaps thousands — of hours of instruction at training camps, paddling practice whenever they were near a body of water, strict exercise regimens (Karpinski often does that at 3 a.m.) and competing in scores of races.

The two, who are at training camps for their respective national teams this week, began their voyages to the national level with the Big Blue Dragon Boat Race in La Crosse, which Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare launched in the summer of 2013 and since has grown into a weekend festival.

Dragon boat racing, which dates back more than 2,500 years, features colorful, canoe-like boats that are 40 to 50 feet long, decorated like dragons and powered by 18 paddlers. A drummer in the bow sets the paddlers’ rhythm and a crew member in the stern keeps steers the craft.

The dragon symbolizes health and vitality in China, and dragon boating has a special niche among cancer survivors after a Canadian doctor’s research in the 1990s found that it benefits survivors’ health through exercise and social well-being. That health link brought Mayo-Franciscan into the fold.

Jumped into deep end

As Mayo-Franciscan’s health promotion director, Freit-Hammes landed not only on the planning committee for the inaugural event but also as co-chairwoman, so she jumped into the deep end as a greenhorn to help plan it.

“It falls under our mission of employee wellness, but I didn’t know anything about it,” confessed Freit-Hammes, who also is a yoga instructor. “I had to watch a YouTube video.”

A longtime multi-tasker, she also was able to sandwich in a trip to a training camp in Florida to learn how to paddle among her other roles in life, being married for nearly 19 years to a man she still has a crush on (according to a Facebook post), juggling her duties as mother of three athletic youths, handling her Mayo-Franciscan job and being involved in other community activities.

“The first time I sat in that boat, I knew I had found something I could do for the rest of my life,” the 47-year-old Freit-Hammes said in an interview, her eyes sparkling at the memory. “I knew I had found something that sparked the team sport flame, and I realized how much I had missed that.”

Recalling her previous life experience as a triathlete, she said, “What I was missing most was the camaraderie, the socializing. Before that, it was a single, lonely sport where you work out on your own. I was hooked.”

Experiencing a similar conversion was Karpinksi, whom Freit-Hammes hired as health promotion coordinator at Mayo-Franciscan — with the stipulation that being involved in Big Blue was tantamount to a condition of employment.

When Karpinski first stepped into a dragon boat, at her first training camp in Florida, she recalled, “I was put in the back of the boat because I was the only one who didn’t know how to paddle. I didn’t even know how to hold the paddle.

“After 10 minutes, I thought, ‘Oh, this is cool,’” Karpinski said. “It’s a crazy passion feeling because you love to do it.”

Mother of Dragon Boaters

Freit-Hammes’ passion runs so deep that she has become a certified dragon boat coach, taking others from the rookie stage to veteran.

Freit-Hammes spreads the credit for her paddling prowess, especially to the coaching she has received from George Arimond, retired chairman of recreation management and therapeutic recreation at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a former professional canoe marathoner.

“He’s my mentor, and he truly has taken me under his wing and always is there for me” in formal training and helping drill dragon boat crews, as well as informal dual canoeing expeditions, Freit-Hammes said.

Coaching is easier when the pupil is blessed with innate abilities, Arimond said: “She’s got all of the skills. One of the most important skills is the drive — and she’s got more than enough.”

Freit-Hammes also has learned to harness that drive and pace herself, said the 70-year-old Arimond, who began canoeing at age 7 in the rivers and lakes around his native Pine City, Minn.

“She finally realized she had to listen to her body, and she has the innate ability to understand” various body positions involved in perfecting the paddling stroke, which Arimond described as kinesthetic sense.

“Lori grasps it five times faster than others,” said Arimond, who comes by that knowledge by virtue of his research studies on canoe strokes.

Mentor lauds balance with family

“The other thing, I think — and a lot of paddlers don’t recognize it — is to balance her own athletic talents and her family’s needs. I have had a lot of friends I’ve paddled with over the years who have ended up divorced,” Arimond said.

Amid the training, Freit-Hammes remains attentive to her husband, John, and their three children, Arimond said, noting, “John is a good guy, and they’ve got good kids.”

Freit-Hammes acknowledges that this has been a big athletic year for her family. High school senior Mitchell guarded the net as goalie on the West Salem/Bangor co-op hockey team, which made it to the state quarterfinal. He wielded another type of net when he and Eli Elsen of Bangor finished third in the Wisconsin high school bass-fishing contest to advance to the nationals, where they finished 38th.

Freshman Sydney was a member of the Mississippi Valley Storm soccer team, which made the finals in the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association tournament, losing in an overtime shootout.

Meanwhile, seventh-grader Jaden is slicing across the ice on a U-14 girls hockey team.

“One of the reasons the journey to making Team USA has been so important to me is because I want my children to know what it takes to work tirelessly to achieve a goal,” Freit-Hammes said. “It’s important to me to be a great role model for them and let them know that, no matter what your age, it’s never too late.”

“My husband is chauffeur, cheerleader, supporter,” Freit-Hammes said, adding with a chuckle, “and, he’ll tell you, financial supporter.”

Karpinski is similarly thankful for the backing and patience of her husband, Richard — for reasons beyond the fact that she sometimes disturbs his sleep when she gets up in the middle of the night to exercise.

“My husband is a saint. Bless his heart,” said Karpinski, noting that they often pair up in a canoe or he paddles alongside her outrigger to pace her or evaluate her form.

Karpinski perseveres after fluke injury

The 51-year-old Karpinski is nothing if not a poster child for true grit — as evidenced in her comeback from neck surgery after a fluke injury in April at a dragon boat training camp in Florida.

It wasn’t as dramatic as a training or competitive injury. Rather, she was settling into her room when a folding closet door became dislodged and fell, bonking her on the head.

After assuming at first that the ugly bruise across her forehead was the only damage, Karpinski awoke to excruciating neck and shoulder pain a few days later after returning from camp, the result of a herniated disc in her neck.

Back in the Coulee Region, she tried to push through and employed alternative treatments — acupuncture, acupressure and even home traction — until it became obvious that she needed surgery.

“I couldn’t wait any longer, because the therapy would have overlapped” trials and training, she said.

Karpinski underwent a laminoforaminotomy and discectomy in which a surgeon removed pieces of the herniated disc.

“It’s amazing how a piece of disc that decided to go where it wasn’t supposed to go caused such an intolerable snarkiness in my arm and shoulder,” said Karpinski, who said she endured incredible pain as she tried to power through with as little medication as possible.

“It has been an experience. Life will knock you down. What is important is how you choose to get back up,” she said.

The recovery forced her to refrain from heavy training and exercise, a fact that became apparent to her one day when she was doing push-ups and, on the 63rd, “I face-planted into my carpet.”

It also restricted her to watching the Big Blue Dragon Boat races this summer from the shoreline of the Black River along Copeland Park.

“I like to live on the edge, and it was so hard not to paddle in Big Blue,” lamented Karpinski, for whom “living on the edge” included ice dragon boating in Canada this past summer.

Karpinski, who also is on a club team that competes in alternating years from the national crew, said she threw caution to the wind at her niece’s recent wedding reception.

“I polka’d my heart out,” she said with a satisfied grin.

Karpinski exudes optimism in the run-up to the world competition in China, saying, “I can’t wait to be standing on the podium when they’re playing the national anthem.

“I feel like a 12- to 18-year-old, with the world in the palm of my hand,” she said.

Freit-Hammes acknowledges that making the team doesn’t guarantee a seat in the races.

“I love that,” she said. “It holds me accountable. It keeps me centered on my training and recovery. If I were coaching the team, I would want people to be hungry for a seat. I don’t take my position lightly.”

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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