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Kadena dragon boat racers make friends, build confidence

Members of the Kadena women’s dragon boat team learn to row their boat in unison during a practice session in Naha City, Okinawa, Japan, April 12, 2014. The team’s coach, Comica Middleton, bangs a metal drum at an even tempo to keep the team members in sync. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

Members of the Kadena women’s dragon boat team learn to row their boat in unison during a practice session in Naha City, Okinawa, Japan, April 12, 2014. The team’s coach, Comica Middleton, bangs a metal drum at an even tempo to keep the team members in sync. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Timothy Middleton, 18th Operation Support Squadron air crew flight equipment heavy operations section chief, strikes a metal drum at an even tempo to help his teammates row in sync during a practice session in Naha City, Okinawa, Japan, April 12, 2014. Striking the drum at a tempo even the weakest rower can keep up with helps the team row in unison, causing the boat to travel faster. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Timothy Middleton, 18th Operation Support Squadron air crew flight equipment heavy operations section chief, strikes a metal drum at an even tempo to help his teammates row in sync during a practice session in Naha City, Okinawa, Japan, April 12, 2014. Striking the drum at a tempo even the weakest rower can keep up with helps the team row in unison, causing the boat to travel faster. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

The Kadena men’s dragon boat team practices rowing in sync as the Kadena women’s dragon boat team passes in the distance in Naha City, Okinawa, Japan, April 12, 2014. The teams attended two dragon boat familiarization practices at the race location. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

The Kadena men’s dragon boat team practices rowing in sync as the Kadena women’s dragon boat team passes in the distance in Naha City, Okinawa, Japan, April 12, 2014. The teams attended two dragon boat familiarization practices at the race location. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

Japan Air Self-Defense Force Warrant Officer Kazuo Ogawa, 83rd Air Wing, Maintenance and Supply Group, Field Maintenance Squadron engine mechanic, demonstrates the proper way to use a paddle on Naha Air Base, Japan, March 26, 2014. Members from the Kadena dragon boat team travelled to Naha Air Base in order to perfect their technique and strengthen their friendship with the JASDF dragon boat team. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

Japan Air Self-Defense Force Warrant Officer Kazuo Ogawa, 83rd Air Wing, Maintenance and Supply Group, Field Maintenance Squadron engine mechanic, demonstrates the proper way to use a paddle on Naha Air Base, Japan, March 26, 2014. Members from the Kadena dragon boat team travelled to Naha Air Base in order to perfect their technique and strengthen their friendship with the JASDF dragon boat team. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Timothy Middleton, 18th Operation Support Squadron air crew flight equipment heavy operations section chief, rows along with his team at practice on Naha Air Base, Japan, March 26, 2014. Middleton, who coached for the first time in 2014, rowed on the Kadena dragon boat team during his previous assignment to Kadena Air Base in 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Timothy Middleton, 18th Operation Support Squadron air crew flight equipment heavy operations section chief, rows along with his team at practice on Naha Air Base, Japan, March 26, 2014. Middleton, who coached for the first time in 2014, rowed on the Kadena dragon boat team during his previous assignment to Kadena Air Base in 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Thirty-two people aboard a beautifully carved boat move in unison to the tempo set by a mallet striking a metal drum. Each time the drum sounds its command, two straight rows of people dig their oars into the water and pull backward with all their might. They are exhausted, they are wet and they are giving it all they've got.

They are the Kadena men and women's dragon boat teams.

Teams from Kadena Air Base have been participating in the annual Naha Dragon Boat Race for 25 years. The race takes place during "Hahrih," a festival that originated in China and is held to pray for luck in fishing endeavors and safety on the open sea.

Master Sgt. Timothy Middleton, 18th Operation Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment heavy operations section chief, coached the men's team while his wife, Comica Middleton, coached the women's team. The Middletons decided to give coaching a try after participating in dragon boat races as rowers during their last assignment to Kadena.

"We wanted to make sure it was a friendly environment everyone could enjoy while working hard," Timothy said.

The relaxed and friendly environment was enticing to many participants who wanted a fun way to get in shape and meet new people. The idea of being involved in a culturally immersive activity attracted a good number of participants as well.

"The tradition is hundreds of years old and it's exciting that they allow military personnel to be involved," said Katie Skinner, a rower for the Kadena women's team. "It has a lot of meaning to it, and that had a huge influence on why I wanted to do it."

The team got some pointers from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force dragon boat team, coached by JASDF Warrant Officer Kazuo Ogawa, 83rd Air Wing, Maintenance and Supply Group, Field Maintenance Squadron engine mechanic.

"I knew the coach, he remembered me from the times I rowed in 2006," Timothy said. "Getting involved with our allies was very fun and interesting. Not everyone gets to form that friendship that we have with the JASDF, that's a unique thing for the Air Force team."

Ogawa taught the teams to row in sync by having the coaches bang metal drums at a steady cadence even the weakest rowers could keep up with, and having the rowers dig their paddles into the water each time the drum was struck.

"When the team first starts, there's a worm effect," Comica said. "We call it that because when everyone is rowing, they aren't rowing in sync and it looks like a worm. Watching them go from the worm effect to being one solid unit hitting the water at the same time was amazing."

While getting help from the JASDF team definitely improved the team's confidence and technique, they also did plenty to help themselves. The team held four practices a week, alternating between rowing at Kadena's Fairchild Pool and performing exercises focused on shoulder, back, abdominal and arm muscles.

Although much of their effort was focused on getting the team in top physical condition, the coaches emphasized that dedication and participation are key to making a good team great.

"We always said 'row with your heart, not your arms,'" Comica said.

Race day finally came after months of practicing, and with it came a torrential downpour that grounded planes, halted traffic and forced officials to cancel the Naha Dragon Boat Race for the first time in 35 years.

"It broke my heart," Timothy said. "All that hard work we put into getting the team ready and practicing was just washed away overnight."

When they found out the race had been cancelled, many of the team members felt like they had practiced for months with nothing to show for their effort. However, after spending most of the day together at a barbeque held in lieu of the race, they realized that wasn't the case.

"A lot of the teammates have made lifelong friendships," Comica said. "It got some people out of their comfort zones. I had a lot of women who doubted themselves and were fearful of even trying out because of how intense it looked."

Comica added that she thinks many of the participants have a bigger family as a result of being on the dragon boat team because some of their spouses were deployed during the race and they were able to lean on each other.

Although they weren't able to compete in the race, the coaches and team members agree that being a part of the Kadena dragon boat team is an experience they wouldn't trade for anything.

"I made some great new friendships, which is a definite plus to being on the team," Skinner said. "It's fun and it's a cultural experience. I got to go down to Naha to practice and meet the JASDF team. It's just a once-in-a-lifetime experience that makes me even more excited to live here."

The team plans to compete in the Chatan Town Dragon Boat Race, scheduled for June.

"The race being cancelled didn't crush the spirit of the team, it just made us more eager to finish what we set out to do," Comica said.