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Dragon Boat racers beat summer heat

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The DCH Dragons team races for the finish line. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Dragon boats fill Meadow Lake for the annual two-day festival. Photo by Christina Santucci
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A drummer for Hketo sets the pace to row back to the dock. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Members of the DCH Dragons team compete under the sponsorship of Toyota during the 22nd annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Participants fill Meadow Lake. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Stephen Chao, a member of Shaolin Temple Overseas kung fu school, demonstrates his skills. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Amy Chen flies a kite with her father He Chen. Photo by Christina Santucci
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A festivalgoer watches the performances. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Boats are decorated with painted dragons. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Dragon boats fill Meadow Lake for the annual two-day festival. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Amy Chen flies a kite. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Derrick Silva, 4, plays with a beach ball between rooting for the Flushing Hospital team. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Kites fill the sky above Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Tony Lau (r.) from Goldman Sachs escapes after teammates dumped a cooler of water on him. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Boats are equipped with dragon tails. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Yamil Sanchez mans the station from Taco Mix. Photo by Christina Santucci
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David He (c.) ties up the kites belonging to his sons Johnson (l.), 7, and Jason, 4. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Lexi the dog wears boots to the festival. Photo by Christina Santucci
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A member of Shaolin Temple Overseas kung fu school takes the stage. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Flushing residents Jasmine and Jacob Kui take a break from the heat. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Alan Lee from United East Athletic Association sports a superhero's mask. Photo by Christina Santucci
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Participants row in unison. Photo by Christina Santucci

Amid the blazing heat of summer in the city, the 22nd annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival launched Saturday and Sunday on Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, with more than 180 teams vying for cash, prizes and the honor of claiming this year’s U.S. Dragon Boat Open Championship.

The races kept up the age-old tradition of racing in colorful, custom-made teak boats, which glide across the water led by the snarling head of a dragon. The boats, piloted by up to 20 crewman with 18 paddlers, a drummer and a steers person, weigh 1 ton each — making pulling the boats across Meadow Lake quite the labor-intensive task.

“These boats are so incredibly heavy — nothing like the fiberglass boats most racers are used to,” said Bill Wong, coach of the NY Wall Street Dragons. “Paddlers have to be on top of the game in terms of teamwork and they absolutely must have the heart of a competitor.”

Wong said even the most technically proficient paddlers tend to have difficulty getting used to a race such as this.

“A lot of the younger paddlers think they can just jump into a boat and start rowing like a machine,” he said. “It’s not that simple. It’s a tough race and the competition is real and ready.”

Competition away from the water was evident, but not as fierce. Tens of thousands gathered at the foot of the Verizon Stage, competing for prime spots on the grass as they feasted on the multicultural cuisine offered by dozens of vendors. If one craved a pork bun with a side of paella and buttery ear of corn, this was the place to make it happen.

Connie Franklin, a self-described race enthusiast and homemaker from Long Island, said she never misses the annual event, even as the temperature flirts with the century mark.

“I’ve got my hat, my sunglasses, my sunblock — I was here yesterday and I’ll be here until the end today,” said the Bayside resident. “This is such a fascinating culture.”

And besides the action on the lake, festival Chairman Henry Wan said the celebration of culture is really what brings the Dragon Boat revelers together.

“This is a grand celebration of Queens, the most culturally diverse place in the world,” he said. “I love planning this event every year because I see how much everyone enjoys it. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to start planning for the 2013 race.”

Wan will not be alone in getting ready for next year’s race at the close of this year’s events. Dragon boaters fresh from the water exhaled deeply, marveling at how much hard work goes into each and every stroke.

As she climbed out of her teak boat, Julie Kwong said the race was draining, yet exhilarating.

“It was really exciting being out there,” said the Flushing resident, who was not sure how the team fared in the competition. “We train all year, then it’s over in a flash.”

DCH Racing took top honors in the overall championship race, placing first ahead of second-place DCH Racing II and third-pace Lake Mercer DCH Racing.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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