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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Portraits Tyrone Beason

Zheng Wang / Commands a dragon with the power of the mind

Not long after Zheng Wang moved to Seattle in 2001, by way of Boston and, before that, his native China, he found a pastime and a sense of belonging in a new city through dragonboating. To call this paddling sport a bonding experience — teams of 22 glide across the water on slender 40-foot boats, rowing in perfect, huffing synchronicity — would be an understatement. Wang's team, Hot Sake, is like his big, crazy West Coast family, which he captured last year in his self-made documentary, "My Eating Team Has a Paddling Problem."

Team Hot Sake, which practices twice a week along Lake Washington in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, has two seemingly contradictory personalities.

As the cheeky title of Wang's new documentary suggests, the two dozen or so team members who show up at any given practice love to eat together. After practice on Tuesdays, New Star restaurant in the International District. On Saturday mornings, Jade Garden for dim sum.

"The eating is a big part of the bonding experience, a way to connect with each other outside of the boats," says Wang, a 31-year-old program manager at Microsoft and this season's co-captain.

But one way of connecting winds up feeding another.

On the water, the team converts its camaraderie into raw power, intense focus and unity of movement.

At practice, the caller, who stands at the front of the boat counting the strokes and monitoring technique, sets a serious tone for what's known as "power drills," hellish sprints requiring maximum effort.

"Paddles up!" the caller shouts. The paddlers position their oars straight up in the water, their outside shoulders extended beyond the boat's edge, their torsos and faces twisted inward.

"Power! Ten! Now!" the caller shouts. "Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten! Ready! And! Reach! It! Out!"

Shoulders tighten, thighs twitch, chests heave. The strain of keeping good form, and perfect time with the other paddlers, is so intense during longer runs that the water starts to feel as thick as butter.

"It's a good hurt," Wang says.

But a funny thing happens: speed, a thrilling lightness, transcendence.

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"You can feel the boat kind of lift up," Wang says.

"It's like 22 minds coming together."

In the end, the only paddling problem is coming down off the communal high.

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