Lori Freit-Hammes might have to see her dentist first before she goes home to West Salem, with all the metal medals she’s chomping on after proving her mettle — and proving quite nettlesome to more experienced paddling teams — at the IDBF World Championship Dragon Boat Races in China.
“I’m beyond proud of how we performed today,” Freit-Hammes said in assessing her mood after she and other paddlers on Team USA’s Senior A crew won a silver medal and a bronze to add to the stash she started with two bronzes the day before.
Also accumulating medals is Sue Karpinski of Trempealeau, who won a second bronze with her Senior B team roiling the waters of Dianchi Lake in the city of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province.
“We knew what we had to do today, and we delivered,” Freit-Hammes said. “The two Senior A teams I paddle on are considerably less experienced than most teams — fewer than a handful of my teammates have ever competed at the world championships before.”
With most countries launching boatloads of veterans onto the water, “I think we surprised a few teams today,” said Freit-Hammes, who knew little to nothing about dragon boating less than five years ago.
The competition is as fierce as the dragons adorning each boat, with the cumulative difference of only 5 seconds between gold and silver medals in three races, said Freit-Hammes, a 47-year-old mother of three who is health promotion director at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse. The 51-year-old Karpinski, who could not be reached for comment, is Mayo-Franciscan’s health promotion coordinator.
Freit-Hammes’ first exposure to the sport came as a planning committee member for Mayo-Franciscan’s inaugural Big Blue Dragon Boat Races in 2013. She drafted Karpinski when she hired her two years later.
They made Team USA of the United States Dragon Boating Federation after extensive training, testing and competition as well as exercise regimens that included Karpinksi’s workouts at 3 a.m. several days a week.
The U.S. federation is a member of the International Dragon Boat Federation, which hosts the IDBF World Nations Championships in odd years. Those competitions, dating back to 1995, rotate among cities, much like the Olympics, and have taken place twice in the United States — in Philadelphia in 2001 and Tampa in 2011.
Freit-Hammes and Karpinski will have plenty of chances to get their paddles in the water during the next few days. The Coulee Region reps face 500-meter races Friday, 200-meter tilts Saturday and 500-meter contests again Sunday before closing ceremonies.
The dragon duo are competing against national teams from almost 25 countries or territories, including Australia, Canada, China, China Hong Kong, China Macau, Chinese Taipei, Cyprus, Germany, Great Britain, Guam; India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Myanmar, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand and Ukraine.
Dragon boating, which dates back more than 2,500 years, features colorful, canoe-like boats 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.
Mayo-Franciscan’s Big Blue races have become so popular that they have expanded to a weekend festival each summer.