When Greg Laxdal first climbed into a dragon boat, it was to help raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society. Never in million years did he think he’d one day be a world champion.
Laxdal, 48, won two gold medals and a bronze at the 2012 ICF Dragon Boat World Championships in Milan during the Labour Day weekend.
Paddling on a two-kilometre course, Laxdal took gold in the senior (18+) men’s 20-man boat and bronze in the masters (40+) men’s 20-seater. He also stood at the back of the junior men’s boat — only the paddlers must be 18-and-under — steering it to an unexpected gold medal victory.
"It’s still sinking in," Laxdal said last week, a few days after returning from Italy. "To be on Team Canada and to have the announcer say you’re the world champion still gives me shivers."
About three-quarters of the 60-person Canadian team was from Winnipeg, a burgeoning dragon boat hotbed. Racing against some powerhouse teams from Europe, the Canucks finished second to Russia in the gold medal standings with nine. They also won the Federation Cup for earning the most points in mixed competition.
Keith James, a longtime dragon boat coach and builder in the province who was at the event as an official, said the Canadians’ performance was remarkable.
"They punched well above their weight category," said the River Heights resident, who has seen the program progress immeasurably since the mid-2000s. "The competition was very high this year. The programs have exceeded expectations. It was very sweet."
Laxdal’s story is similar to many of the Canadian paddlers. He signed up for a local dragon boat festival as a corporate fundraiser in 2000 and fell in love with the sport.
"I still do festivals (Winnipeg now has three every summer) and fundraising," said Laxdal, who lives downtown and spent parts of his childhood in St. James and Fort Garry. "But now I practise a whole lot more."
Even when the rivers are frozen, Laxdal and his teammates supplement their training in the gym by working on their paddling in a rented pool once a week.
James credited coach Jerome Seremak — who even built special seats that can be used in the pool without moving — with taking the program to a different level.
"After the first four years we got a little tired of the festival life and waiting for it to become more competitive," James said. "We put in a lot of hours. We practise 12 months a year, do weight lifting and a lot of different things to engender different results at the highest levels."
While much of the national team is based in Winnipeg, there are members from Toronto, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon as well. This puts Canada at a disadvantage compared to some of the geographically smaller European countries.
"Realistically, all we had was two days before the competition to get the real boats together," Laxdal said. "It’s mind-blowing that we did so well."
Next year’s championships are scheduled for Kyiv, and Laxdal is determined to be part of the team that departs for Ukraine.
"Training for next year starts today," he said.