Intensity a vital factor for dragon boat teams

Intensity a vital factor for dragon boat teams
The men’s dragon boat team training at Marina Bay yesterday. The arrival of head coach Naing Naing Htoo in July last year brought a much tougher training regimen that came as a surprise to his charges.

At least six months of full-time training - that was the commitment required for anyone who had wanted to represent the national dragon boat team at next month's SEA Games.

For paddlers Loh Zhi Ying, Jerry Tan, Raymond Kiang and their team-mates, it meant putting studies and jobs aside. Many took no-pay leave and are under the Sports Excellence Grant for Loss of Wages, a compensation scheme for full-time Games athletes.

Yet, the past six to eight months spent training together has built a solid foundation on which they hope to win four traditional boat race golds at Marina Bay next month.

Such confidence cannot be drawn from past records. The last time the men's dragon boat team won gold was back in 1993 on home waters. The women's team took bronze at the last Games after the sport's two-decade medal drought.

But when the trio were asked what it will take to win gold this time, they answered without hesitation: Full-time commitment. "Synergy, team chemistry - you don't get that by training only twice a week, twice a day," explains Tan, 31.

Full-time training also meant they did not have to train in the early morning, head to work, then trudge tiredly back to the water to paddle again in the evening.

Rather, it means they train, rest, recover, and are eager to continue. The team follow a strict training regimen - one that begins at 5am and goes right down to the exact time when they sleep: 10.30pm. Sharp.

This is the first Games where the team have trained full-time for such an extended period of time.

All members have a weight target to hit, but are free to decide what they eat, coupled with advice from the team's nutritionist. "Meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruits, no starch, no sugar," Loh, 23, rattles off his diet considerations with a laugh. Then there is the punishing training. While the average Singaporean dials 995 or 999 for help, the team's medal hotline is 992 - the affectionate nickname they have for head coach Naing Naing Htoo.

Htoo was the man behind Myanmar's combined 21-gold tally in traditional boat racing at the last two Games. When he came on board in July last year, he immediately sought to raise the training intensity and volume, while cutting down rest time in between training sets.

"It came to us as a shock at first," Loh recalls. "He had to extend our rest time, just for us to get used to it." Such tough training, Htoo explains, will be crucial for their endurance, especially once they cross the 100m mark of any race. Htoo's experience with - and knowledge of - other rival teams in the region has also been a key factor in building the team's confidence. "It's an exposure of what they actually do," says Kiang, 27. "We have new training ideas and see new techniques - which work because it worked for them."

Come the start of the competition on June 6, coach Bryan Kieu says they should be at their peak. Says Loh: "Technique-wise and fitness-wise, we are expected to be there. Right now, it's about (our) execution."

Home support will likely provide the X-factor in the dragon boat team's quest for gold at Marina Bay.

It is what drives the team on, as they sing the national anthem without fail at 7am each day before training commences.

Explains Tan, to unanimous nods: "Everyone is on the same page here. It's why we commit." For them, victory on race day will mean more than just perfectly synchronised, perfectly sliced strokes of their paddles.

It will be proof that the region's underdogs have finally found the formula for success


This article was first published on May 26, 2015.
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