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Denver was down with dragons way before HBO’s Game of Thrones made them cool again. Although only 15,000 people showed up to the first Colorado Dragon Boat Festival (CDBF) in 2001, attendance has exploded over the past 15 years: Some 125,000 spectators turned out last year to Sloan’s Lake to watch dozens of teams paddle it out in a floating Belmont Stakes. The races may be the main attraction, but CDBF, July 18 to 19, mixes the drama of competition with music, dance, food, and crafts representing approximately 15 Asian cultures. Here’s what you need to know about one of the summer’s most popular cultural festivals.
- 278 B.C.: Approximate year the Chinese poet and warrior Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river Mi Lo to protest political corruption. Legend claims fishermen raced to recover his corpse before fish gobbled it up, spawning dragon boat races as a yearly tribute.
- Like a quarterback, the flag catcher steals the spotlight in victory…or defeat. Seated behind the drummer, the catcher extends out over the dragon figurehead as the boat nears the finish to seize the flag.?
- 2: The number of Taiwanese-style boats (shown here) owned by the CDBF and used in the 250-meter flag-catching division. The CDBF also has six Hong Kong–style boats that are faster, sleeker, and raced in spirited 150-meter, 250-meter, and 500-meter sprints. When not being used for practice, the boats are stored near the Aurora Reservoir.
- Every boat glides to the beat of a different drummer. This vital team member uses a traditional Asian drum to establish the paddlers’ cadence—and initiates the switch to double time should the competition pull ahead.
- 20: Local restaurants and food trucks at this year’s CDBF, including Top of the Town pick DaeGee Korean BBQ (page 191). Last year’s inaugural Culinary Dojo also returns. featuring Colorado chefs putting on Asian-inspired cooking demonstrations.
- The 18 paddlers, who symbolize the dragon’s claws, don’t have the luxury of oars fixed to the boat. Instead, they lean over the side (kind of like you would in a canoe) and use the drummer’s pace and the person in front of them to stay in sync.
- 52: Teams expected to participate, up from 16 in 2001, when immigrants from Mongolia won. There are corporate outfits and amateur ones that train by pulling trucks across parking lots or by paddling in rec center pools. No team dominates, but the Lao Buddhist Temple crew is always tough to beat.
- If one side of the boat works more efficiently than the other or a crosswind stiffens, the coxswain (provided by the CDBF to ensure there are no “rubbin’ is racin’?” incidents) keeps the boat on course by using a long oar as a rudder.
- 100: Cultural performances on five stages during CDBF (think martial arts alongside hip-hop and graffiti art).
- Although the boats look like they’re covered in carvings, they are primarily fiberglass. Two were made (weirdly) in Poland; most of CDBF’s other vessels, which typically run $4,000 to $6,000, were bought from a Seattle dragon boat club.