Though it's billed as fun on the water and friendly competition, the Chattanooga Dragon Boat Festival is becoming a bonafide sporting event with athletes eager to win.

Now four years old, the local competition has grown in popularity, according to festival spokeswoman Penny Behling. This year, in addition to races by local teams, the U.S. Dragon Boat Festival Club Crew National Championships will be held in Chattanooga, Behling said in a news release. The national club crews will race 200, 500, and 1,000 meters during three days of competition, today through Sunday.

The event, which also includes music, cultural entertainment, children's activities and refreshments, raises money for T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital Foundation. Last year, paddlers from 49 teams raised more than $93,000. This year, the event will feature 87 teams (including the national teams).

On a local level, competition will be fun and fierce.

Ben Friberg, who headed last year's winning team from Heritage Funeral Home, said his team is taking the competition seriously.

"Last year, we were not very competitive. We were just out there for fun. We were happy to win, but we were having just as much fun playing volleyball, badminton and beach games between the races," he said. "This year we are taking it a bit more seriously, but really we're just a bunch of friends who play in the local rivers and creeks together."

Friberg said his team consists of 20 paddlers (eight woman and 12 men) ranging in age from late teens to late 50s.

"Most of us made it to two practices in the dragon boat (this) week ... and some will be in the boat (at the actual event) having never been in a dragon boat," he said.

In addition to receiving a team award, each paddler was presented a medal. Additionally, the Heritage Funeral Home team won the Spirit Award.

Friberg predicts competition will be somewhat fierce for his Pallbearers team this year.

"The Tennessee Valley Canoe Club (a whitewater paddling club that nabbed top honors two years ago) seems very hungry to take back the championship, and a winning team from Knoxville is coming to compete against Chattanooga, so perhaps it is growing more competitive," he said. "The dragon boat organization has also been providing private lessons and practice time throughout the year for some teams."


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