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    Dragon boaters launch a new festival on the Cooper River

    The first Cooper River Dragon Boat Festival drew 28 teams to Pennsauken, New Jersey, on Saturday, bringing together experienced athletes and newcomers to the ancient sport.

    Paddlers competed in four divisions ranging from the experienced competitive/sport divisions to the community division, in which many of the teams had no prior experience with dragon boating. There was also a division for cancer survivors.

    Each elaborately decorated dragon boat holds 20 paddlers, one person to steer, and a drummer, who keeps the beat from the front of the boat. Teams raced in heats of three on the 200-meter course.

    Two teams hosted the festival: the River Sirens, a South Jersey women’s team, and their associated cancer-survivors’ team, the River Sisters.

    “We are thrilled to offer this opportunity to South Jersey,” said Wendy Schwartz, co-captain of the River Sirens. “I can think of no other competition that brings together such a wide range of participants, from weekend warriors to regional and national champions.”

    The team plans to make the festival an annual event.

    The River Sisters won their first gold medal, beating out Hope Afloat by .04 seconds.

    In the community division, the River Jakes made the day a true family affair. The team is made up of the seven Jakubowski brothers and their families. The River Jakes had never been on a dragon boat before entering the water at the Cooper River festival, but they made it to the finals, losing by only a few hundredths of a second.

    The Bancroft School team also made their debut at the festival. Bancroft, a school for special education in Haddonfield, N.J., assembled a team of students, teachers and local teens to work together to paddle their dragon boat. Lisa Nielson-Barron, a member of the River Sirens, realized her dream of bringing the sport to her community at Bancroft.

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