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ISSUE 1: Why Be a Person When You Can Be a Dragon?

Alex Ollikkala (’24) gets silver in the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships.
Janiece Mitchner
An illustration depicting a traditional dragon boat on the water.

Despite the small dragon boating community in Tampa, senior Alex Ollikkala was able to hone his skill and find his way to the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships.

The 2023 World Dragon Boat Racing Championships were held from Aug. 7 to 13 in Pattaya, Thailand. These competitions are hosted by the International Dragon Boat Federation every odd year. This year, Ollikkala, one of Robinson’s very own students, competed and placed second for the US National Under 24’s Team.

Dragon boating combines aspects of canoeing and rowing. Teams consisting of between 12 and 22 rowers compete in canoe like rafts decorated to look like dragons.

However, Ollikkala hasn’t always been interested in dragon boating. He actually started off rowing before taking a break and eventually making the switch to dragon boating about two years ago. Despite this unexpected switch, Ollikkala was able to find a position that suited him better.

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“[I am] the steersperson… I steer in the back and steers for dragon boats have a lot more control than steers for rowing,” Ollikkala said.

As the steersperson, Ollikkala is responsible for steering the boat while shouting orders and instructing his fellow teammates. This important role takes practice. Ollikkala spends roughly four hours a week on the water and a lot more time on land between cleaning up and preparing the boats and his individual workouts.

However, Ollikkala’s heavy school load as an IB student can cause him to miss practices from time to time.

“It really depends on school,” Ollikkala said. “If I’m not busy, I try to go every weekday [along with] practices on weekends…”

Although juggling school can be difficult, it did not stop Ollikkala from trying out and making the US National Under 24’s Team. Initially, he tried out for the Under 18’s Team, but they already had enough steersmen, so he was deferred to the Under 24’s Team which he was able to qualify for.

Before long, Ollikkala found himself on his way to Pattaya, Thailand for the 2023 Dragon Boat Racing Championships in early August of this year. While there, Ollikkala did not disappoint and returned home after his division received three silvers.

While Ollikkala has only been dragon boating for around two years, he has grown immensely in that time in both his maturity and leadership skills.

“Before, when he started, he was very quiet and would just mind his own business, but now he has developed the leadership [skills] and become more vocal so that people understand what he needs them to do,” Ollikkala’s coach Kitt Saca said.

Although Ollikkala would like to continue his dragon boating career in college, that may not be a realistic scenario.

“It depends where I end up,” Ollikkala said. “Again, it’s not a very large sport, so there aren’t good teams everywhere. We’re lucky to have like two really good competitive teams in Tampa, but where I’m going to college I don’t know if they’ll have any teams.”

Whether or not he is able to continue this passion of his in college, Ollikkala has gained many friends and opportunities from the time he has been able to spend dragon boating.

This story was originally published on RHS Today on October 13, 2023.