Dragon boat racing is intense. It demands rowers be quick and powerful while working together in unison with teammates.
It suits Nicholas Cushman perfectly. “Through the years, I’ve always liked sports that are more repetitive,” said the West Windsor 17-year-old. “You know what to expect when you’re doing the race. I’m the sort of person that doesn’t like to be surprised.”
Yet Cushman was thrilled with the surprise of his life when he was invited in April by the United States Dragon Boat Federation to join the Team USA U18 Dragon Boat.
Cushman only took up the sport in January, and after one national trial in February didn’t go as well as he hoped, he made the most of another chance to impress the national team coaches in April in Tampa, Florida.
They responded with an email invitation to train with the team that will compete in the World Dragon Boat Championships in August in Pattaya-Rayong, Thailand.
“I was really surprised,” Cushman said. “For a couple months, I was on the alternate list. I also did a time trial a few days before that and my time was definitely improved. I think it had a lot to do with it. It was pretty sudden.”
Cushman, a junior at Notre Dame High, had rowed crew for a couple years, but never felt as attached to it as he does to dragon boating. His first taste of dragon boating came through the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association.
“I guess it was midway through January I tried out these indoor sessions in Pottstown with the Philly team,” Cushman said. “It’s one of those things that you instantly fall in love with when you try it.”
The PDBA is coached by legendary American dragon boat head coach Bob McNamara.
McNamara has been coaching dragon boating for 33 years, won numerous international titles, and saw potential in Cushman.
“He wasn’t starting fresh,” McNamara said. “He essentially got hooked up with adults who have been world champions and have been doing dragon boating for 30-plus years. We’ve taken youth to world championships and they’ve won world championships. He happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
McNamara said Cushman got in with the right mentors, went to indoor sessions. and to a training camp. He went to Florida and was paddling twice a day with elite rowers.
Cushman had a background in an assortment of activities. He’d tried crew after dabbling in several other interests, but it is dragon boating that helped to bring everything together.
“I know crew is similar,” Cushman said. “I did tap dancing for a bit, and then I did figure skating. Even though they’re so different, they seem to have all played a role. Figure skating kind of helps with balance and tap dance helps with rhythm. I just think it’s an interesting thing to think about—the variety.”
Crew is the closest to dragon boating. McNamara says that the connection with water is their biggest similarity, but there are differences that drew Cushman.
“Both have been fun, but I think the main difference is for dragon boating you have this sense of control,” Cushman said. “The paddles are two or three feet long. For me, I feel like I have more control over it. Another big difference, crew is more of a core sport, whereas dragon boating is very much arm oriented. If you look at the people on the U.S. team, my mom says they can’t hold their arms down because there’s so much muscle.”
Cushman has good size and uses it well in the boat. He has put a lot of time to build up his technique quickly and gain some experience.
“He has such loyalty, and that’s hard to get with the kids, and the desire to do it,” said coach Billy Heffernan. “He’s got a very good focus. He has a long career ahead of him. He’s very dedicated to the sport. When he says he’ll be there, he’ll be there.”
Heffernan is coach of the youth in Team Relentless out of New Hope, Pennsylvania. There are more adults in the club and Cushman trains with them at times. After being introduced to the sport with PDBA, Cushman found Team Relentless a little closer to home than Philadelphia.
“Luckily we’ve been able to get a lot of practices in,” Cushman said. “Philly, they have practice every single day of the week, but it’s very early in the morning so I can’t exactly make it. So then I go to New Hope and they’ve also been good getting everyone stronger, whether it’s for a regatta or festival.”
Wherever Cushman has gone, he has found more experienced dragon boat racers who are happy to help him. It started in L.A., and continued when he delved deeper into dragon boating in Philadelphia and New Hope.
One of the challenges was adjusting to the different aspects of dragon boating. It didn’t come instantly, but he worked to understand the demands of the sport.
“I think part of it is connecting the different parts of the body that you have to use,” Cushman said. “For crew, it’s not totally straight, but you have to sit pretty upright. For dragon boating, you’re leaning in a C shape. Your back is supposed to be like that. It was weird at first to adjust to it, but with practice it got fine.”
Cushman improves with each time that he’s practicing for dragon boating. His background in crew helped him get off to a quick start.
“This is more high level paddling,” Heffernan said. “It takes a lot of strength. He’s very strong, which is nice. He’s a nice sized kid. Your timing has to be right on. When you’re in a crew with 10 people, you have to be on.”
The 10-man boats of the U18 level are smaller than the normal 20-man boats used for older crews and they tip easier. Teams have to be in sync to work well. Cushman had to learn quickly while practicing frequently with the more powerful adults. He’s picked it up quickly to get to the national team level.
“It’s a little unusual,” McNamara said. “But we’ve seen it before. We’ve taken kids in the first year and taken them to the world championships and had them do well.”
Cushman is making sure that he gets in plenty of practice as he builds toward joining the national team toward the end of summer to prep for the world championships.
He is looking forward to the chance to compete internationally in a sport that has become a major part of his life. He’s never competed overseas in anything.
“This will be the first time,” Cushman said. “Thailand is by far the longest trip I’ll be taking for competition.”
It’s already been a whirlwind tour to get to this point. Nicholas Cushman was just looking for something new when he found a chance to compete in dragon boat racing. Making the national team just a few months later made for one surprise he was thrilled to experience.
“It’s really, really hard to believe,” Cushman said. “I’m still in that shock stage of it all. I’m definitely happy but the whole thing of it happening so quickly is really weird. I’m happy about it. The community as a whole has been really nice and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”