The Dragon king of Nanjing

Updated: 2012-06-25 11:08

By Cang Wei and Song Wenwei (China Daily)

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The Dragon king of Nanjing

Canoeists compete in the dragon boat racing in Nanjing. Photos Provided to China Daily

The Dragon king of Nanjing

The winners in the Nanjing middle school students' dragon boat racing wave their awards.

The Dragon king of Nanjing

Yan Shi was elected as "Good Nanjing resident" in 2011.

He competed at the top level for years in a canoe, but for the past few years Yan Shi has devoted himself to the development of dragon boat racing, as Cang Wei and Song Wenwei report from Nanjing.

When Yan Shi retired after a successful career as a top national and international canoeist in 1989, he never thought for a second that a whole new sporting life still lay ahead.

When you consider the success the now 48-year-old man achieved - six gold medals at national level and another three at the Asian Games it was always going to be a tough ask to hit the heights of success for a second time.

Like many top sports stars, Yan always thought retirement would probably mean one thing a move into coaching, and sure enough he first worked as a canoe coach in East China's Jiangsu province, with considerable success.

"Six of my trainees won gold medals in national and Asian championships, and at that time I thought coaching would be my future career," he says proudly.

But in 2005, he was quite unexpectedly offered the chance to tackle something completely new to him, which he is delighted to say, has not only kept him busy since, but which he enjoys still "every single day".

Officials from the provincial sports bureau told him he had been nominated to promote dragon boat racing, a sport largely unpopular among the local public in the area, but with a fanatic support elsewhere in the country, and a growing international appeal.

His passion from then on, has been promoting particularly the Nanjing Dragon Boat Association, which he says has captured his own imagination to an extent he never thought possible since retiring from top level competition himself.

And when you talk to him, it sounds like the success he has managed for others, might even rank higher than that he achieved for himself.

Traditionally, dragon boat has had a strong following in Guangdong, Fujian and Hunan provinces, but when Yan first started his role in Nanjing, the city was by his own admission, "a total desert of the game."

Today Nanjing holds the most and the largest dragon boat events in China. The association has more than 40 business partners, and attracts 100,000 people to its activities every year.

The city now has more than 100 dragon boat teams, 40 of them consisting of high school students.

Yan's dedication to the cause of Nanjing dragon boat has been total, and no better illustrated than when in June 2008, heavy rain and high winds hit the city the day before the first dragon boat race for high school students was held.

To make sure the event went ahead, he spent most of the night organizing emergency measures, talking to fellow organizers, doing everything possible to make sure all the dragon boats were shipped to the venue in time, even helping workers move the boats out of the storm, almost getting hurt in the process by a falling crane in the dark night.

But the man himself simply says: "My colleagues and I get a lot in reward for our hard work.

"Every year, the number of people taking part in dragon boat races is increasing in Nanjing.

"Many government departments and schools, and companies both Chinese and foreign have established their own dragon boat teams and ask the association to train their employees to participate in dragon boat races, because they've noticed the great benefits of this sport," he adds.

So what is it about the world of dragon boat that has captured his attention for those years?

Yan says there's a lot to do with the numbers involved.

"Well, compared with football, which needs 11 people to form a team, generally a dragon boat team is comprised of 22 players and a helmsman, which means that more people will have chance to participate.

"Dragon boat players also understand the importance of team work - that's the most important aspect of this sport," he adds.

Then there's the appeal of the sport for so many different groups of society.

In 2008, Yan invited blind and weak-sighted students in Nanjing to form a special team in a dragon boat race. After training really hard, the team took fourth place, and continued to win special honors in other high school dragon boat races.

"It made me so happy to see that many students become more independent and confident in themselves, after participating in the boat races," he adds.

"That makes my job meaningful."

Yan's actually not alone as a former top canoeist who's joined the sport after retirement, after all, the money is pretty good.

"It is well paid. Nowadays a dragon boat player can earn about 200,000 yuan ($31,500) a year," he explains.

"The participation of those professional canoe players, who are well trained and well-built for the effort involved, makes dragon boat races more competitive and more pleasurable to the eye."

In recent years hundreds of thousands of people have flooded to the great lakes of Nanjing to watch races in the Dragon Boat Festival.

About 300 dragon boat teams have been receiving training this year.

"There was a dragon boat race held in Nanjing recently where teams from more than 20 countries and regions participated. It's a great form of mass sport," says Yan.

"This year is the Year of the Dragon, and I hope that more Nanjing residents will become interested.

"In addition, during the Dragon Boat Festival, there will also be lots of other things going on around the event, including hip-hop dance and aerobics, to attract more people to get involved," he adds.

"Though I will retire in 12 years, I'll continue to work for the dragon boat association as a volunteer. It's part of my life now."

"I always think that I' really lucky to be able to combine my interest with my lifelong career," says the man, with a smile.

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