The 15th annual Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival was in full swing this past weekend as hundreds of teams and thousands of rowers came to compete in the unique and highly anticipated races.
Dragon boat racing is a sport that began nearly 2,000 years ago in China, involving longboats powered by a team of rowers. A competitive dragon boat team consists of: 20 rowers who sit side by side, a drummer to keep the pace and a steersman who controls a large paddle attached to the back of the boat.
One of these teams, Blind Start -- an organization based in Cerritos -- was comprised of both blind and visually impaired competitors, as well as rowers with unimpaired vision who were blindfolded during the race. This is the second year Blind Start has competed in the festival.
The team was founded by Brian Tom, who lost his vision to Glaucoma in his early 20s. When asked why he created the team, Tom said he was simply trying to prove a point.
“I learned two alarming facts, number one, less than one percent of all disabled Americans ever owns a home," he said. "Of the employment age population that are blind or visually impaired, less than fourteen percent are gainfully employed. So Blind Start is a mission is to shatter those statistics.”
Tom said he also wanted to come up with a “wow” factor to raise awareness in the community.
“We also have a blind mud run, dinner in the dark... and BMW on Monday nights,” said Brian. BMW, or Blind Music and Wine, is an event the club holds every Monday night at n Cerritos where the all-blind a capella group OutASight performs.
Other Blind Start competitors included Durrell Johnson who was legally blind at birth but his vision improved as he got older.
“I went through a lot of programs, Boy Scouts, Explorers, ROTC, then I went to the reserves for the Marine Corps,” said Durrell. “My vision was 20 over 80 at the time, it was good enough for me to get in.”
Durrell was then deployed to Iraq where lost his eyesight in combat.
Another competitor, Dominick Martin, lost his eyesight in a severe car collision that nearly took his life.
“As soon as I heard about this, I had a couple of friends telling me you should try the dragon boat race, I came out here and tried it the first time and I was like, alright I'm doing this,” he told Patch.
In describing the impact Blind Start has had on his life, Dominick said, “It's helped me to not feel as helpless, you lose your vision, there's a lot of hopelessness that can come along with it."
"Everyone here is always great, there's always someone there to lend an ear or give advice, it's been a big help, for sure,” he added.
Among the Blind Start rowers who were not visually impaired were numerous Cerritos and Artesia officials including the Mayor of Cerritos , Cerritos councilman , Artesia Councilmembers and Sally Flowers, as well as members of the Cerritos Planning commission and , and ABC School District Legislative Committee member .
When asked why she volunteered for the team Mayor Chen said, “To bring awareness that we have a segment of our population that is visually impaired and blind that we need to assist and help out.”
“Carol, she got to all of us,” councilman Barrows told Patch. “One thing we can do from the city council is bring more attention to it.”
For Artesia councilman Lima, the city's connection with the organization's cause is something he's very proud of.
“The was the first organization to recognize Blind Start of America and really give a donation to start it," he said. "We're very proud of that fact."
There were so many participants eager to row with Blind Start, the team had two boats in the competition. And, after the race was over, the two teams took fourth and sixth place.
Tom swears that his team will practice harder to do better in their next race, which is will be in Las Vegas in October, as the group has decided to compete year-round.
Though the racing for team Blind Start was over on Saturday, the competition continued through the weekend with final elimination rounds on Sunday.
Besides the racing, there were several performances held throughout the event on the main stage, including a variety of dance peformances, magic acts and even a Chinese Yo-Yo demonstration.
If you're interested in learning more about dragon boat racing, joining a team or even starting one of your own, visit http://www.lbdragonboat.com.