“One up, two up, three up, four up!” a team of paddlers in their dragon boat can be heard shouting in rhythm to the beating of drums on a humid Thursday afternoon in the waters at the Marina Bay area.

They are sweating profusely, but they keep pushing on. After all, this is their final practice before they race in the DBS Marina Regatta tomorrow (Jun 1).

But any onlooker can tell that they are neither the fastest nor the fittest team present; they are obviously not athletes, and they do not have the bulging arm muscles of regular dragon boaters.

Just less than 100 metres away, another boat is fast catching up with them. Yet they aren’t demoralised by their lack of pace. Instead, they break into smiles: They are just happy to be paddling away in the boat.

The team is actually from the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), with some crew members, like 38-year-old Benson Loo, suffering from vision loss.

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Loo, who has Usher syndrome, a condition which affects hearing and vision, started losing his sight in 2010. He told The Pride: “I enjoy being able to paddle now. The feeling is very good, and it’s quite thrilling.”

Loo and his crew, including volunteers with the SAVH, are among a number of teams participating in the community race, organised by DB Hearts, in this year’s regatta.

A ground-up movement made up of volunteers from the local dragon boat community that seeks to be inclusive, DB Hearts was founded by former national paddler and coach Tan Eng Hee, along with a few others who desired a more inclusive and diverse community.

“They wanted to extend the sport to others instead of the usual community… they wanted to do something more meaningful,” explained Desmond Koh, chairman of DB Hearts.

“We really looked at people in society that are marginalised – we are talking about individuals with special needs, with maybe a certain kind of medical condition. We want to really do our part in raising awareness towards a more inclusive society.”

It will be the second year in a row that they are organising the community race – or adaptive, as the DB Hearts team would like to call it – segment in the regatta, having been approached by DBS last year. For the DB Hearts team, it is a sign that their work in the dragon boat community is being recognised.

“It’s an acknowledgement from the organisers of the regatta for us,” said Koh. “We are very heartened that they retained this community race segment from last year. The significance of this is that there is a growing awareness, and that our society is growing to be more accepting. That no matter your condition, you can still be part of this.”

He added that it provides a much needed break away from the intense competing, with sentiments on the ground agreeing that the community race is something meaningful. He also said that it allows the community to appreciate each other, and that is something encouraging.

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Image Source: DB Hearts

In the lead-up to the race, the SAVH team has had training sessions on the first Saturday of every month, conducted by qualified coaches who volunteer their time with DB Hearts. They also train a group consisting of intellectually-impaired participants and their caregivers – who will also take part in the community race – on the third Sunday of every month.

Equipment such as paddles, boats and the personal flotation devices, are all provided for by DB Hearts, which like any other ground-up movement initiatives, are limited in resources. Thankfully, there are sponsors that have reached out to provide apparel.

“I look at these monthly training sessions as empowerment sessions,” Koh explained. “When the participants and their caregivers are given the same apparel to wear as the volunteers and the coaches, it feels as though we all belong to one community. It’s all about unity.”

DB Hearts could perhaps take heart in what they have achieved so far. The monthly sessions have made Loo so fascinated with the sport, that he actually wants to spend more time on it.

“He wanted to join the other group (the intellectually-impaired) to have more continuous training,” said SAVH volunteer Chua Swee Keow. “But because they have land training, he couldn’t.”

Loo chimed in: “I really look forward to the monthly training sessions. But because the trainings are only once a month, I will count down all the time to the next training day.”

With 10 committee members and more volunteers from within the dragon boat community stepping up, Koh is hoping that they can do more. He said it was heartening to see everyone using their personal free time to contribute to its cause. They have even had offers of help from non-dragon boaters.

One of them is Jayne Leong, a 31-year-old primary school teacher who helps DB Hearts out with marketing. She got to know about DB Hearts through her boyfriend, who is part of the committee. And, after having attended a few meetings, she decided to help out as well.

“It’s actually very inclusive and they don’t ostracise anyone. I thought it was quite an interesting group, and as a non-paddler, I see things in a different perspective. So we can actually have opinions from both perspectives, and how we can engage the non-paddlers to come in and join us to help these adaptive people.”

Koh, who spends at least one hour a day on the day-to-day running of DB Hearts, said that the whole initiative has been a learning curve, too, especially when it comes to keeping the participants engaged.

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Image Source: The Pride / Nigel Chin

“We are still learning to pick up (their behavioural traits) to try and communicate better because everyone of them is different. The challenge is, of course, to get them to paddle in sync because that is something that is crucial in dragon boat,” he stated.

“If we can get 80 per cent of the boat to be paddling in the same stroke and rhythm, we would have achieved success. So far, we are still striving towards that. Then again, it’s also different when we are engaged with the visually impaired, as they rely on sound.”

He went on to explain that there was once a situation when an individual who is blind got agitated as everyone kept asking him if he was OK.

Koh said the participants want to be treated like normal people, so the key is to “look at them as one of us instead of being overly sympathetic towards them”.

“These are things that we learn… and it’s really enriching to all of us,” he added.

But tomorrow, it won’t be about DB Hearts and what they do.

Instead, it will be all about the community race and its participants. There will be no medals or trophies on offer for coming in first, but make no mistake – they are taking it seriously.

“I’m really excited about Saturday. It will be my first time taking part in a race,” said Loo, who only picked up a paddle just seven months ago.

“When I was younger, I had no chance or no time because I was tied up with work. With my vision loss, it gave me a little bit of time to relax and think of what I would like to do. Now I’m given a chance to do this, so I want to make use of this chance. No regrets now.”