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Susquehanna Life

Outdoor Recreation: Racing Fever

Kevin (front seat) racing at the 2013 World Championships in Szeged, Hungary.

Story by Lisa Z. Leighton
Photographs by Tommy Leonardi

In 1983, the Hong Kong tourist bureau requested that U.S. Rowing, the nonprofit governing body for the sport of rowing, send a dragon boat racing team to compete in its international festival—all expenses paid.

Bob McNamara, Chair of Emergency Medicine at Temple University Hospital, joined the team for the free trip, he admits in a Philadelphia Inquirer article. After five days of racing, team China earned the top spot and, miraculously, the United States took second place.

Past and present

Since that first race, the United States and Canada have emerged as powerhouses on the scene, in a sport that historically has been dominated by Asian countries. Team USA has won more than 100 championship medals, including 23 gold medals, all under the tutelage of Coach Bob McNamara, who has served as head coach of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Race team since 1986; Team USA holds world records for the men and co-ed teams’ 500 meter races.

It’s not surprising that for Bob McNamara, who is considered the most successful dragon boat coach in the USA, and for his son Kevin and daughter Colleen, an active member of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association since 2003, dragon boat racing is a passion.

Kevin, also an Emergency Medicine physician, Bob and Colleen are all medal winners in the sport (as are Bob’s other two children) and find dragon boat racing physically challenging and a way to bring their family closer together. Colleen, who joined the PDBA coaching staff in 2016, has been to more world championships than any other female paddler in the United States. She attended her first world championship in 2001 in Philadelphia and won her first gold medal ten years later at the competition in Tampa. She is a five-time world champion, and serves on the board of the PDBA; even Kevin and Colleen’s uncle Pete has caught the racing bug. The family has been involved in the sport for more than three decades.

Kevin grew up in Philadelphia and received his Doctor of Medicine degree from Temple University School of Medicine and completed his medical residency at Drexel College of Medicine.   

“This is still a relatively small sport and a core part of Team USA still comes from Philly,” says the younger McNamara. He loves the fact that the sport still has a grassroots feel.

Rowing central

Philadelphia is considered “rowing central”—dragon boat practices take place on the Schuylkill River up to five times a week, and the city will host the International Dragon Boat Festival on October 6, 2018, with more than 100 individual teams registered.

A dragon boat is, in essence, a 40-foot-long “canoe,” four feet wide, made of fiberglass, with a carved painted dragon head on the front, a wooden tail on the back and the hull of the boat is painted with dragon scales. The paddles used by the participants symbolically represent the claws of a dragon.

Dragon boat racing requires 20 paddlers on a boat, in pairs, plus a sweep (steersperson) and a drummer who sits high in the bow of the boat facing the team, overseeing each paddler and the race course. The drummer sets the pace and encourages the team’s synchronized efforts. Kevin McNamara prefers to sit near the front of the boat, helping to set the intensity and pace of the race.

“I like the strategy of that [front] position: setting the stroke rate and deciding when to sprint,” he said. “I have been to a lot of competitions so I know that those decisions can help win or lose a competition.”

Near and far

For more than a decade, Kevin has travelled to the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships every other year in Canada, Hungary, Tampa Bay, Australia, Germany and, in November 2017, Kunming, China.

“I love getting out on the water and travelling to other countries for competitions,” he said.

McNamara is already looking ahead to the 2019 championships in Pattaya, Thailand. He and the rest of Team USA will hold several fundraisers in Philadelphia between now and then to pay travel costs for the team’s members and coaching staff.

Throughout his dragon boat racing career Kevin has been in college, medical school, in residency and now on staff full-time at Evangelical Community Hospital, in Lewisburg; he always manages to find time to train and travel for championships.

“About nine months before a championship, I’ll start to get serious and get out on the water and into the weight room more consistently,” he explains. “I try to do a training camp in Florida.”

Kevin’s competitive spirit enjoys that part of the sport, but he also finds it relaxing and a counterbalance to his stressful day-job.

As an Emergency Medicine physician at ECH, Dr. McNamara specializes in rapid recognition and treatment of trauma and acute illness. He is one of four full-time, four part-time and six per diem physicians on ECH’s emergency staff, along with eight advanced practitioners, who collectively assist with over 30,500 ER patient-visits annually.

Kevin is proud of his professional career, but is equally pleased that Team USA has successfully won two golds out of eight events each year. McNamara says the most challenging races for the teams are the shorter competitions in which the Chinese, Canadian and Philippian teams are particularly strong.

Team USA excels at longer races, including the 1,000 meter and 2,000 meter; they have earned no less than second place over the last 10 years.

“The middle distance races are always the battleground,” he says.

The lighter side

But it’s not all serious competition. McNamara laughs when he recalls the China world championships, when the water was so shallow that they bottomed out after getting caught behind two waves.

“But we still finished in fourth place in that race,” he says, as a smile lights up his face.   

Lisa Z. Leighton is a freelance writer and marketing professional who resides in Columbia County.

Tommy Leonardi has been a commercial photographer for 30 years — and a dragon boater for over 20 years.

Visit for more information about the history of dragon boat races.

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