Paddleboating lets Pittsburghers get to know their waterways

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Pittsburghers are notorious for their reluctance to cross rivers. Jim and Judy Robertson, natives of the North Side and South Side, respectively, see themselves as the exception to that rule.

After more than 40 years of marriage, the couple discovered dragon boating, a new way to enjoy the rivers of Pittsburgh.

"One of the reasons why it was so appealing is there were very few activities that we could do together."

The Franklin Park couple will leave soon to compete in the 11th World Dragon Boat Racing Championship, which opens July 24 in Szeged, Hungary. They will be members of the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation's Senior C team, consisting of paddlers who are 60 and older.

In 2005, Mrs. Robertson, 72, started paddling during a youth conference. "I came down and got in a boat and that was the end of it," she said.

After she convinced her husband to try the sport, the couple signed up for the Pittsburgh Paddlefish Dragon Boat Team and immediately began winter practices.

"We had all the work before we had all the fun," said Mr. Robertson, 73.

The three-day-a-week practices were rigorous, consisting of circuit training, weight lifting and ergometer rowing machine paddling. In the eight years since, the Robertsons have attended the Club Crew World Championships and started a youth dragon boat team. Paddlers for Peace brings together people ages 12-18 from all over Pittsburgh and teaches them to paddle.

"The idea is to get everybody working together because in a dragon boat, if you don't put your paddle in at the same time as the guy in front of you, you're not going to win," said Mrs. Robertson.

Her goal is to encourage kids to come together and socialize outside of their respective neighborhoods. She has coached paddlers from McKeesport, Turtle Creek, North Side, South Side, North Hills, Somerset, Beaver, Duquesne and Wilkinsburg.

July's world championship will not be her first time competing overseas. She traveled to Penang, Malaysia, with the women of the Pittsburgh Paddlefish to compete in the 2008 Club Crew World Championships.

"It was so exciting. It's almost like being at the Olympics. There are people from all over the world."

Her fondest memory of Malaysia was participating in a conga line at dinner with all of the competing teams.

"If the world could be like this," she thought.

Although Mr. Robertson didn't compete, he accompanied her on the trip. His most memorable experience was a conversation that he had with an Iranian coach. After realizing that they both coached youth teams, the two established a connection.

"[Americans] and Iranians are way apart," said Mr. Robertson.

"But their athletes aren't," coach Natalie Thomas interrupted.

Ms. Thomas will be joining them in Hungary for her second world championship appearance. She participated in the 2011 competition in Tampa, Fla. This year, Ms. Thomas will compete with Natacha DeGenna, another Pittsburgh Paddlefish paddler, on the Senior A Women's Team. She said she's looking forward to being in Hungary with the Robertsons.

"They've earned their spot. I'm proud of them for all of the hard work that they've put in," she said.

In preparation for Hungary, the Robertsons have doubled their practices to six times a week. Some mornings, they practice as early as 7 a.m. The couple often practice in a two-person outrigger canoe. Because Mr. Robertson is left-handed and Mrs. Robertson is a right-hander, they can paddle on either side of the canoe and simulate a dragon boat race.

"This is our only opportunity, so we're going to make the most of it," said Mr. Robertson. "This is like a gift from heaven for us."

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Antoine Allen: or 412-263-1723.


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