Empowerment, Community and Camaraderie with a Side of Competition: Two local dragon boat teams get ready for their big race

EAST GREENWICH – Thousands of dollars raised for charity. Four hundred women. Fifteen dragon boats. Two organizations.

What do all these things have in common?

They’re all based right here in this one town.

The full membership of the Wicked Warriors gathered together at last year’s Independence Dragon Boat Regatta in Philadelphia.

They’re the Wicked Warriors of East Greenwich and the Gloucester County Vixens. Headquartered in the Mickleton and Clarksboro sections of the township respectively, the two organizations are both all about empowering women, supporting charities, and having fun racing dragon boats. While the racing aspect of their groups isn’t necessarily their primary focus, they’re both gearing up right now for one of their biggest events of the year.   

“We’re going to be competing against other women’s dragon boat teams in the area – from Jersey and Philly,” said Christina Criscitello, race director for the Wicked Warriors.

The Wicked Warriors boats at last year’s Independence Dragon Boat Regatta in Philadelphia.

The race is the Independence Dragon Boat Regatta on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on June 3. Around 100 boats will be there to compete with 15 of them representing these two organizations.

The Warriors will be the most heavily featured organization at the event with all 11 of their boats participating in the race.

“Our buses leave at 5:45 a.m.,” said Warriors Vice President Deneen Mulhern of the race day’s preparations. “It’s just so magical watching all 11 busses just go off and drive into Philly.”

Kacy Lowman, president of the Vixens said there are definitely organizations who take the racing side of what they do more seriously – practicing year-round and participating in international competitions.

“We’re not that,” Lowman said with a laugh. “We’re a group of women – most of us, moms. This is kind of something that’s just for us. It’s a way to have something for ourselves, to meet other women and the community, to network, and to give back.”

Lowman said the Vixens started with one boat and 25 participants in 2018, and they’re now up to four boats with over 100 women in the organization.

The Vixens’ “Cubs” Gather school supplies for their backpack drive this past August.

The group of founding women, who continue on now as the organization’s board members, had athletic backgrounds and were looking for a way to keep that competitive edge going according to Lowman. Some of the members, she said, had experience in boat racing, and the group’s focus began to take shape.

Dragon boat racing is an ancient sport, dating back thousands of years. Lowman said the modern boats they use are essentially 40 foot canoes with 10 rows of two paddlers sitting side-by-side. The teams’ captains command the front of the vessel, beating a drum to help the rowers keep time and synchronize their strokes, while a steerer guides the boat from the rear.

“It’s a very fun, not super-strenuous sport,” Lowman said. “We’re competitive. We want to win. But we’re also there for fun and to be together, and the camaraderie.”

Another thing they’re in it for is giving back to their communities through their own charitable endeavors and by raising funds for other local charities. Both organizations are themselves non-profits, and they each choose a charity each year to benefit.

This year, Lowman said, the Vixens are working to support the Friends of the Child Advocacy Center of Gloucester County, who support victims of child abuse throughout the county. She said the group has raised around $65,000 over the past couple of years for their designated beneficiaries, including last year’s recipient – Bianca’s Kids, an organization based in Williamstown that grants wishes to sick and needy children.

She said members nominate potential charities to become their annual cause, and then vote on which organization to choose.

The process is similar for the Wicked Warriors, who this year will be raising money for TOPSports, an organization in Mullica Hill that runs soccer, baseball and basketball programs for children with special needs.

The Warriors were founded in 2020, as a reforming of a previous dragon boat organization known as the Witches of East Greenwich.

“When we decided to start the Warriors, we became more charity oriented, and dragon boating was going to be our side thing,” Mulhern, the Warriors VP said.

The Witches were in operation for about 10 years, Mulhern said, and it left a void when their leadership decided it was time to hang up the oars.

“A lot of devastated captains met and decided that we were going to start a new organization,” she said. At the end of the Witches run, the organization had around 220 members and was running 10 boats.

Since the group’s becoming the Warriors, they’ve added an 11th boat, have about 60 people on a waiting list, and the charitable efforts keep getting bigger and better.

“Just in the three years, we’ve raised about $90,000,” Mulhern said. “That’s one thing that we were pretty proud of when we added the numbers up.”

Danielle Delmonaco, president of the Wicked Warriors, said the group’s efforts have been all the more impressive considering all they’ve had to contend with.

“It was tough during Covid,” Delmonaco said. “But we managed to almost double every year what we were raising.”

The fact that charitable activities are as much a part of these organizations’ purposes as the dragon boat racing itself is evident in Delmonaco’s approach to their member community.

“We take everybody and anybody,” the president said. “We want everybody to feel included. We have everyone from people who haven’t exercised a day in their lives to people who are Cross Fit athletes.”

Mulhern said the Warriors also have non-paddling members who just participate in the fundraising and social aspects of the group, and that the sense of belonging is a third and equal component to their mission.

“It’s like a little community,” Mulhern said. “You may not know everyone in the organization, but you have 290 other women to call on if you need something.”

Every woman interviewed about these organizations echoed that sentiment, stating that the social component of their group is a big part of their draw.

“I get so much out of it,” said Lori Mertz, captain of the Vixens’ Boat 2. “I’ve met such nice people, really great girls who don’t necessarily live in our neighborhood.”

Mertz said the fact that the organization has members from all around the county has afforded her the opportunity to meet people she might not have otherwise.

“I love the support that you see from everyone,” she said. “It’s always positive. Especially in today’s world, with a lot of craziness going on, it’s nice to see. When one of us is going through a hard time, there’s a rally of girls behind you.”

Mertz said the teams practice once each month leading up to the race, and that it’s a busy time for the boat captains – scheduling the practices, communicating with the race organizers, and coordinating with her teammates.

Despite all the preparations, Mertz said she unfortunately isn’t going to be able to make the big race this year, which is disappointing, even though it’s for a happy occasion.

“My sister is getting married – on race day!” she exclaimed. “When she told me the date, I was like, ‘did you book it already?”

The date was set, and so now Mertz is busy training another drummer to step in for her in her absence. She said she’ll be back in the action with the Vixens’ next race on July 16, the Cooper River Dragon Boat Regatta in Cherry Hill.

Criscitello, the Warriors’ race director, said their organization will be there as well. “Because everybody loves the dragon boat racing so much, we’re also going to be doing the Cooper River (race) in July,” she said.

Along with raising money for outside charities, both groups also engage in their own philanthropic missions in the communities they serve. Delmonaco said that when the destructive tornado hit the area in 2021, not only did their members raise money for those affected, but they also got involved directly with the clean-up efforts.

Criscitello also mentioned a clothing drive the group just organized, as an example of how they get their kids involved in their mission. “We also have our local Boy Scouts chapter participating with us too,” Criscitello said. “We try to include children so that they can see the difference we’re making in the community. It’s kind of cool.”

Lowman said the same goes for the Vixens and their “Cubs.”

“We have our kids involved,” the group’s president said. “That’s an important aspect of what we wanted to do when we got started – to have them get involved and get in the spirit of giving back.”

Throughout the year the team organizes a back-to-school backpack drive and a Thanksgiving food drive. Lowman said the kids help assemble the backpacks and even buy some of the supplies for the drive with their own money.

“It gives them an idea that there’s more in this world than this bubble that they live in,” she said. “There’s people out there who need help.”

The Warriors VP added that their group also tries to support local education each year. “Every year we give a scholarship to one graduating female senior at GCIT and Kingsway,” Mulhern said.

Ahead of the Independence Regatta in June, there will be a Wicked Warrior Night at the Mount Royal Inn on May 9, when 10 percent of sales will go to the organization, and they’ll be onsite hosting a 50/50 raffle to raise funds. Meanwhile, the Vixens are currently running a raffle on their Facebook page, and the winners will be announced live on June 3 from the race.

With these two organizations with similar goals in the same area, it would be natural to ask if there is a competition between the two. And naturally there is, but it’s all in fun, the Warriors president said.

“Of course, there’s a friendly competition,” Delmonaco said. “Our kids go to school with their kids, a lot of us are friends with them. We all kind of know each other.”

Lowman went even further to extend the idea of good fun and cooperation. For these two organizations competing to do the most good, it would be odd if it were otherwise.

“I think there tends to be these misconceived notions about women, but as you can see by what both the Wicked Warriors and the Vixens have accomplished, we are stronger when we work together,” Lowman said.

“We will always cheer the Wicked Warriors on and root for their success because they are an amazing organization doing phenomenal things in our community. Every woman’s success is a success for all of us, and for our daughters who will come after us. Some things are bigger than dragon boat racing.”

— By Joe D’Aquila

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