Two years ago, a group of local women in the 50-plus age group, along with their coach, set a goal of competing at the world dragonboat championships.
Even with that in mind, as the Fort Langley Canoe Club's Fast & Furious crew members stood together at Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, soaking in the sounds of Queen's We Are The Champions playing over a PA system, the experience felt surreal to many of them.
The 28 paddlers, drummer, and steersperson had just won bronze in the over-50s Women's Senior B 200-metre event, part of the Lee Kum Kee 8th IBDF Club Crew World Championships.
Australia took top spot, followed by a crew from Pickering, Ont. that Fast & Furious captain Sandy Ferguson described, affectionately, as "our nemesis."
"They challenge us," Ferguson said, regarding the Pickering crew. "We know they're going to be there and we know we want to beat them. We're glad they're there."
Along with their third place result, Fast & Furious missed a medal by narrow margins in both the 2,000m and 500m races.
"World championships? Who would have ever thought, when I took up this sport as a recreational paddler, that it would advance to this level," Ferguson said. "There's no looking back now."
Team member Audrey Milne remembers being marshaled to their boat and looking out at the crowd of onlookers.
"It was like being in an Olympic event," she said. "You have the harbour, the beautiful sunshine, the water, the waves - it was so exciting. And then you're at the start and you're going to put your paddle in the water_ it was so thrilling."
"We knew what our job was," Ferguson said. "There was a lot of nerves. No question, some people have never been in any sport at this level, but we got through that. We know how to dragonboat. We know what we've been taught and we proved ourselves."
The team came a long way, in more ways than one, leading up to the July 4-8 regatta.
Their coach Ben Lee approached the FLCC in 2010 with the concept of leading a crew to the national championships in Welland, Ont. He put a call out, drawing women aged 49-plus from across the club.
Milne remembers a 2010 meeting with Lee, and what he told the crew members.
"He said, 'It doesn't matter how many years you've been paddling, or what kind of experience you have, we're all starting from the beginning and we're all going to work together as a team, and we're going to blend together as a team,'" Milne recalled.
Lee's words resonated with Milne.
"He had this vision of us taking on the world, at the world championships in Hong Kong two years from that date, and you could just feel the excitement, and the passion, and the commitment," Milne said. "There was just this 'dragon spirit.'"
Fast & Furious achieved its goal of qualifying for the world event by earning a team silver medal in the Women's Senior B (Grand Dragon) Division at the national event, held July 1, 2011, in Welland [Fort ladies paddle for world hardware, Feb. 2, Langley Advance].
The top five teams qualified to go to Hong Kong.
After its second place finish in Ontario, the crew members trained for several months, in all kinds of weather, for the worlds.
Ferguson noted that other Canadian teams are able to train indoors during the winter months.
Fast & Furious members spent some time in late January perfecting their paddling strokes at Walnut Grove Community Centre's pool, because ice had formed along the Bedford Channel, making it impossible to train on the Fraser River.
But otherwise, it was just them and the elements.
"Some of the clubs we competed against at the nationals, they have gym facilities," Fergusons said. "They have pools they train in. We don't. We made due with what our surroundings offered us."
The local ladies outrigger canoed during the winter and at times, chipped through ice with their paddles, and found themselves at times drenched under "Wet" Coast raindrops.
With all they've been through, the paddlers who have been with Fast & Furious from the start, as well as the women who joined the crew this year have formed a strong bond.
"We've become like sisters," Milne said. "I'd like to think of it as a sisterhood of paddlers, where we support each other, we talk about all kinds of issues, we deal with any difficulties that might come up. We're all driven and we all have the same goal that we want to win."
Several days after returning from Hong Kong, Ferguson can't stop smiling.
"We're still pinching ourselves to even think that's behind us now," she said. "If you've never taken [dragonboating] up as a sport, take it up. It's social, it gives you activities and connections that you'll never forget."
This was Ferguson's second visit to Hong Kong, her first trip being in 1996, and she was taken aback about how much the city has progressed since then.
"It's so modern," Ferguson said. "The high rises come right out of the water, it's busy, it never stops. We just got there, got on our feet and kept running for the whole time."
Milne, who was in charge of sponsorship prior to the trip, never imagined herself competing on the water for a world title.
"Five years ago, paddling really wasn't on my radar," Milne said.
Instead, she was involved in triathlons, before a knee injury in 2010 slowed her down.
The injury took her off her feet, and into a dragon boat seat.
Ferguson had been paddling for seven years but never competitively, until two years ago.
"It's the best sport in the whole wide world," she said.
Fast & Furious team members are already looking ahead to the 2013 nationals in Victoria and, ultimately, the 2014 world championships in Ravenna, Italy.
Team members include coach Ben Lee, paddlers Sandy Ferguson, Terry Dunne, Allie Wilkins, Ann Mohs, Audrey Milne, Barb Maestri, Brenda Thorpe, Carolyn Jeffreys, Cheryl Bublitz, Chris Dunne, Cindy Gillanders, Colleen Littledale, Debbie Dickson, Ingrid Rennie, Jaye Barbour, Karen Baillie, Linda Li, Liz Libera, Lorraine Winteringham, Mare Cox, Meg Puffer, Pam Jones, Rita Holmes, Sue Eichorn, Vicki Whiteley, Victoria Cuipka, Wendy Wittmack, Yvonne Blankstein, steersperson Heather Innes, and drummer Sue Tuttle.
@ Copyright 2013