Transcending sight

Over the past six years, members of a certain Portland dragon boat racing team have made waves not only by placing high in competitions, but also through devotion to their craft.

Over the past six years, members of a certain Portland dragon boat racing team have made waves not only by placing high in competitions, but also through devotion to their craft.

What’s most notable about the team, called Blind Ambition, isn’t just their competitive streak or their devotion, however. What’s most interesting about the team is that, like their name might suggest, nearly all of the team members are blind.

But that doesn’t really matter when you’re out on the water, according to Ayla Montgomery-Kraly, president and assistant coach of the 30-member team, all but six of whom are visually impaired. What matters, she said, is teamwork.

The members of Blind Ambition are also varied. The team is made up of a widely different set of background and occupations, including doctors, students, housewives and even an IRS agent.

“We’re really diverse on our team,” Montgomery-Kraly said. “But, yet, when we come together to practice, we come together as one.”

Dragon boat racing involves a team of paddlers, usually between 16-20 people who face the front of the boat, in addition to a drummer (or caller), who beats a drum in time to the lead paddlers’ rhythm, and a tiller, or helmsman, steering in the rear.

Since making their debut in 2002, the members of Blind Ambition have participated in Portland’s annual Rose Festival dragon boat race, but they are forgoing the competition this year so that they can raise money for a future trip to China, Montgomery-Kraly said.

In addition to racing in the birth nation of the sport, the group hopes to visit the Milo River, where dragon boat racing began over 2,000 years ago—something that the group could accomplish with their inaugural fundraising Valentine’s gala and art auction, she said.

Between efforts such as the gala and the numerous competitions they take part in, it’s not unreasonable to say that Blind Ambition are an enthusiastic and tightly-knit group.

“I love the community of it,” said Mei Ling Wong, the team’s lead paddler. “The dragon boat community is incredible.”

Wong, an avid skier and weightlifter, joined the team four years ago, when she was approached by vice-president Patricia Kepler, and said she was excited when the president asked to join.

“That was my first opportunity to ever to be in a competitive team sport,” she said.

Although Wong had never had a chance to participate in a competitive sport before, no one on the team seems particularly concerned with their visual impairments.

“We are paddlers first, and we’re visually impaired second,” Montgomery-Kraly said. “We don’t want to be in a special category. We just want to be competitors first.”

Portland State student and fellow member Laura Lines agreed.

“Some people think that you have to see in order to paddle, and you really don’t,” she said.

In fact, Wong said blindness can serve as an advantage when racing on the water, because they are not easily distracted when other boats are coming along side them.

“It’s a common thing,” Wong said. “[Sighted teams] they start panicking and their timing gets off, because they’re worrying about all the other boats. To me, that is an advantage, because we’re not looking at the other boats.”

However, the sport is still physically demanding, Wong said.

“A race is intense,” she said. “You’re coming off that water and you can barely breathe. It takes everything out of you.”

Head coach Lynne Beckham agrees.

“The techniques are not intuitive,” she said. “It’s something you definitely have to practice.”

Ultimately, Wong said she and her teammates hope to see their strength grow in numbers.

“We want to get as many blind people out there who want to be competitors,” she said.