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Iron County team competes in dragon boat race


Submitted photo

MERCER RESIDENT Hedda Patzke beats tempo on a drum while the rest of the Iron Dragon crew paddles Saturday on Lake Minocqua during the second annual Minocqua Dragon Boat Festival. The photo was taken by event volunteer George Anast.


MINOCQUA, Wis. - As was the case last year, Iron County was represented on the waters of Minocqua Lake Saturday during the second annual Minocqua Dragon Boat Festival. Iron Dragons were among the 26 teams competing in the festival's races.

"It was just a great day. It was a lot of fun ... the weather was perfect, and the fact our area can collect so many people together to be in alignment for a charitable cause is really notable," Iron Dragons team organizer Gail Ondresky said.

Dragon boats feature 20 paddlers in a boat - along with a drummer to keep tempo and a person steering the boat - racing in groups of three on the lake's 300-meter course. The name comes from the dragon motif that often is used to decorate boats.

Of the 26 teams competing Saturday; 18 were community teams made of, "Either businesses, or friends and families or something like that from the area - or in some cases, the state," according to Beth Wetzler, one of the festival's organizers.

The remaining six teams were club teams that regularly travel to compete in dragon boat races around the country.

On Saturday every team was guaranteed two races, with the times combined to determine who advanced to the finals. Wetzler said the top 12 community teams went to the finals, where they were seeded based on their results.

"I think most people had a really good time, it brought out a lot of spectators. We were just so fortunate because the weather was so nice. It was 180 degrees different from last year's deluge. It was just horrible last year," Wetzler said.

While the Iron Dragons finished 16th of the community teams and failed to advance to the finals, Ondresky was pleased with the performance, saying the team was comprised almost entirely of retirees and was likely one of the oldest teams competing.

"I think it's spectacular a group of people that age can get out there, exert that amount of energy and laugh about doing it," Ondresky said.

For Ondresky, the races weren't as much about competition as some of the more serious teams racing.

"I mean it does bring out the competitive nature in you, there's no doubt about it, certainly you want to give it your best," she said. "But nothing near the amount of competitiveness there is among those club teams."

Ondresky, who already said she is definitely competing in next year's festival, said there are several reasons she enjoys the races - including the fact that, despite everyone on the team having some form of paddling experience, the dragon boats are a unique challenge that use different muscles and movements from canoes or kayaks.

"We don't have a dragon boat to utilize here year-round, or even the three or four months we could be on the water," she said.

She got into the event last year, when Wetzler - who lives in Mercer - wanted to field an Iron County team in the inaugural event.

"(Becoming involved was) just through hearing about it and knowing, as a community, we wanted to get a boat together," Ondresky said.

While Iron County actually field two boats last year, Ondresky thinks last year's weather may have dampened the enthusiasm and limited participation to just one team this year.

"Last year, the experience was just awesome, but the weather was (not enjoyable). It poured the entire day, it never stopped - and I don't mean it was just a drizzle, it was a monsoon pour," she said, adding she talked to several people who said they didn't want to return to compete this year.

Even with last year's storm dampening enthusiasm; 14 of the 21 team members this year were veterans of last year's inaugural event, according to Ondresky.

While the sport remains unique, Ondresky said she thinks it is becoming more popular as people become aware of it.

While Saturday was a competition, it was also for a good cause - namely raising funds for the Howard Young Foundation.

The festival was created when several of the members of the foundation's board were looking for an event to raise awareness and raise funds.

While the Iron Dragons may not have had the best showing during the races, the team did far better in its fundraising effort.

As of Friday's cut-off; the team's $1,959 was the fourth highest among the teams competing this year, according to organizers.

"It's really great to be able to contribute to what we consider our local healthcare (system) in the area," Ondresky said.

While the final numbers are being calculated; the festival raised at least $200,000, according to Wetzler.

"I guess it goes back to how important medical care is in rural areas like ours. I think we're very fortunate to have a community hospital in the Minocqua area like Howard Young," Wetzler said. "The foundation is there to raise money for things that maybe the hospital budget doesn't cover."

More information on the festival, and complete results, can be found


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