By Jenny Cowan
Another season of red and black will soon descend upon Swedesboro.
As warmer weather approaches, dreams of pool days and beach vacations will start to become reality. However, for 180 women in Swedesboro, Logan, and Woolwich, the idea of finally “getting in the water” this summer means something else entirely.
For those women, who make up the Queens of Swedes dragon boat organization, summer is when they can finally put on their red and black team colors, and take their dragon boats out for practice on the Schuylkill river in anticipation of the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival, an annual race that takes place in October.
Dragon Boat racing is not a new sport. It dates back over 2000 years to China, and according to the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Festival website, is one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world.
The annual festival brings together teams from all over the world to compete in a race along the Schuylkill River. In 2014, more than 70 teams of 20 rowers each, competed in the weekend long festival.
The Queens of Swedes were there as well, representing our community for the fourth year in a row with six boats of women. They did not return empty handed, as one of their boats earned a medal in the race.
So how exactly did almost 200 women from Swedesboro, Woolwich, and Logan get involved with such a unique sport?
It all began in 2011. Three friends, Dore Gantz, Jeanine Solari, and Natalie Salvatore were inspired after hearing the story of a friend who participated on a dragon boat team based out of East Greenwich. Gantz, Solari, and Salvatore wondered if they would be able to organize the efforts of their own local community to participate in the race.
“With some hesitation, we scheduled an open house to see if anyone was interested. Within an hour we had a full boat. Twenty one amazing women ready to embark on something new,” said Solari and Gantz.
And so it began. The team, with just one boat, participated in the festival for the first time in October 2011. “In our first year, our goal was really to learn the techniques of dragon boating, not fall in the water, and cross the finish line,” said Gantz.
Exhilarated after that first season, the team leaders wanted to expand their mission. They realized that, although the first season had been about rowing, they had created an organization that was full of enthusiastic women looking for new challenges that went beyond dragon boats.
That next year, the Queens began to look for ways to give back to the community through charitable efforts. In 2012 the Queens organized their first gala at Auburn Winery, raising enough money to support three charities that year.
As the organization grew, so did the galas. “The gala has become a special yearly event where we have offered raffles, 50/50 auctions, as well as tickets sales to raise money for charities selected each year by all of the Queens. In addition to raising money for local charities, we offer a scholarship each year to a Kingsway Regional High School student,” said Solari.
“As one of the original Queens, I have watched this great organization grow from a small group of women with a vision to a network of 100 plus women, uniting their talents to provide for our community. I am so proud to be a part of this amazing group,” said team member Wendy Bosco.
Though charitable giving is just as important to the members as rowing, the experience of participating in such a unique physical challenge creates a special sense of camaraderie amongst team members as well.
The Queens of Swedes is made up of members with all different levels of physical ability. Some have played sports for many years while for others joining the Queens is the first time they have taken part in an organized team sport.
The Philadelphia Dragon Boat Festival website explains that the accessibility of the sport to a wide range of people is one of the reasons it has become so popular. The website states, “Participants of any level of fitness can quickly adapt to and develop a passion for this sport.”
Members of the Queens agree.
“Being a woman who has never played a team sport or was part of a team organization, what excited me most about being a Queen was the idea of this large, diverse group of women coming together for an incredible cause, so many of us stirring up the courage to leave our comfort zone to get onto the water to paddle and provide for our community,” said Stacey Lewis.
The season begins in early April with a kickoff meeting for new and returning Queens. This year, more than 50 new women signed up to be part of a boat. Many of them had heard about the organization simply by word of mouth.
For new member Marisol Collins, getting on the water is what she is most excited about. “I thought it was something different and fun to try. Raising money for charities and local families is an added bonus,” Collins said.
For other new members, the charitable work is what motivated them to join this year. “It seemed like so much fun, and I wanted to be a part of a group of women who all have one thing in common, wanting to work together as a team to give to the community,” said Jen Huntsberger.
Both reasons reflect the mission statement of the group: A team of women who inspire each other to do great things. Together we paddle on the water and during the year we help provide for our community.
The new members of the group will join the 130 returning Queens who participated last year. Returning members are quick to share their insights and rowing knowledge with new members, making sure that everyone is ready long before race day.
“Some women are hesitant to join because they think being on the water and paddling is out of their comfort zone since they have never done it before. There are several practices that you can attend before the race to get you used to the boat, paddling, working with your drummer, and learning commands as well with your steer person.
“You will get a feel for the water during these practices and also do a few practice races to prepare yourself for race day. Your Captain also plays a large part in teaching technique and motivating you to be the best you can be,” said returning member Diane Botto.
Gantz and Solari explained that following a kickoff meeting, members are given the opportunity to visit a pool paddle facility in April where teams begin to practice the fundamentals of paddling. The facility provides a pool with stationary rowing equipment to allow rowers a simulated racing experience.
After practicing in the paddle pool, each boat gets the chance to practice three times on the Schuylkill between the months of July and August. Though this may seem like a brief time to spend preparing, these practices allow team members to get a feel for rowing on the open water and develop a rhythm as they learn to follow their drummer and steerer. The small time commitment required was a pleasant surprise to some Queens who otherwise lead busy lives and were nervous about adding something else to their schedules.
“What surprised me most was that the time commitment to the Queens was not very time demanding. I am a full-time working mother of three and a grandmom. It is perfect for my life,” said Alanna Wintheim.
The Queens are excited about the year ahead. Not only will they be sending seven boats to compete in the Philadelphia festival in October, they are also planning some new surprises as well.
“This year is very exciting because instead of a Queens Gala, we are launching our first Royal 5K Run/Walk at Cecil Creek Farm. This is a new fresh effort to support our charities this year. We are in the planning stages, but details will be out to the community by the summer,” said Gantz and Solari.
Gantz and Solari also explained that enthusiasm for the Queens goes beyond just the women who take up a paddle. The children and families of the team members are just as excited about what the Queens are doing.
Each year the organization prints up dozens of red and black shirts that say, “My Mom’s a Queen” for the children to wear around the community and while cheering for their moms during race day.
“I love the feeling we get towards race day. Especially when you see the kids wearing the shirts in support of the moms. I love seeing Queen magnets on the back of everyone’s cars too.
“The kids always yell, ‘Look Mom! There’s another Queen!” said Abby Steurer.
Because the kids are such supporters of the organization, the Queens wanted to do something more this year to include them.
“This year the Queens of Swedes will also launch The Royals Program for all the princesses and princes in the area. Our kids have so much to offer and learn about giving back, so we want to empower them by developing an organization where they learn to give back to the community and participate in charitable efforts to support the community,” said Gantz and Solari.
It’s clear the Queens are doing something right. To date they have seven boats planned for the upcoming festival, have organized three galas, supported six charities, and sponsored four Kingsway Regional High School Scholarships, raising over $19,000 in total. Lewis summed up the feelings of the entire group. “It is just so good to be a Queen,” Lewis said.