Gal Indyk is clearly having a great deal of fun putting his dragon boat team, the Ohalo Dolphins, through its warm-up before getting in the boat.
Where other teams do some yoga stretches, perhaps some jumping jacks, Indyk has the team playing the kind of games you might remember from summer camp. Currently, everyone has a clothespin clipped to the back of his or her shirt and they’re around trying to snatch a many other pins as they can from each other. There’s a lot of laughing.
Dragon boat racing was unknown in Israel before Dragon Boat Israel (DBI), an Israeli-Canadian organization founded in Ottawa, produced its festival to the Sea of Galilee in 2012. That festival featured 40 teams, 20 of which were Israeli, none of whom had ever been in a dragon boat before.
Indyk, an instructor at Ohalo College in the Golan Heights, had paddled other boats before, particularly sea kayaks, so he was keen to take on this new-to-Israel sport, gathering team members from the students at the college.
The Ohalo team loved their experience at the DBI Festival and, to its great surprise, came in second, beaten only by a Canadian team. The team was hooked. At the second DBI Festival in 2013, it finished in first place. Having accomplished that, the Dolphins are now setting their sights higher: the International Dragon Boat Federation’s world championships taking place September 3 to 7 in Ravenna, Italy.
It is the ‘spirit’ of dragon boat racing that drew Indyk to the sport.
“You can be a serious competitor and also have very much fun with it. But I quickly realized that the real appeal of dragon boating was the team,” he said.
“The nature of the team in dragon boat racing is special,” said Lisa Rosenkrantz of Ottawa, who paddles and drums in dragon boat festivals in both Ottawa and Israel.
“With a lot of team sports you work together, but someone is always in the spotlight, like the runner in baseball. One person can be a superstar or can blow it for a team. But with dragon boat racing, there are no stars. The key is not to stand out. You to blend in, to mesh perfectly with you teammates so you all paddle in unison,” she said.
This was one of the reasons DBI founder Debbie Halton-Weiss thought dragon boat racing would be a good sport for Israelis.
“Successful teams become like family. We hoped the sport would catch on not just with Jews, but with all Israelis and help them bridge differences. It is amazing what can happen when you get in a boat together,” said Halton-Weiss.
The Dolphins were taken with not only with the sport of dragon boat racing, but with the philosophy behind the creation of DBI.
“There was a wonderful emphasis on inclusiveness,” explained Indyk. “And we really liked that. Our teams range in age from 17 to 60 and we have Jewish, Muslim, Druze and Christian members, both able-bodied and handicapped.”
Indyk said the diversity of his team started out as an accident, but once he realized it, he went out of his way to encourage people from diverse Israeli communities to join, creating the team motto “All different but all the same”.
“The point is to have a good time,” said Indyk. “We don’t have try-outs. If you want to join and you are willing to work hard, you are welcome.”
Team member A’bir A’bu Sa’ah, who is Druze, says she feels like her team really is a family.
“We all get along very well,” she said. “It is like we are the best that Israel is, and we want to get to Italy to show the world this, that all different Israelis can work together and be friends.”
Indyk said going to the world championships is also his way of thanking the founders of DBI.
“This group of women gave us this great gift, bringing these boats here and teaching us this sport. But they live in Ottawa. There is only so much they can do. The next step is ours.”
Of course, Halton-Weiss is delighted.
“We are incredibly proud of the Dolphins. They are the embodiment of the best this sport has to offer and the ideals of DBI and we can’t wait to see how they do in September.”
Indyk said he doesn’t really care how his team places in Italy. In fact, he never cares about the results.
“We have such a good time out on the water. We have already become a team and we have been accepted to represent Israel at the World Championships. We’ve already proven ourselves. The only thing left is to enjoy the experience.”