Riding the River: Decatur man’s passion for dragon boating

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Perched on the edge of the wooden seat, Mike Ward braced his feet on the floor of the boat, stretched his arms out over the water and shoved the paddle into Flint Creek.

That was his introduction to dragon boating.

“I didn’t have a clue what dragon boating was until the Decatur Morgan Hospital created the Dragon Boat Festival in 2012. I had no idea it even existed,” Ward said.

Now, 11 years later, the 70-year-old Ward is immersed in the sport.

He helmed the Lynn Layton team, a perennial favorite in the hospital’s event, for nine years, captained a team that represented the United States at a competition in China, and serves as a coach with a national dragon boat racing company.

“It’s kind of a hobby now,” Ward said. “It’s just been a whole lot of fun.”

That dragon boating appealed to Ward, a former high school coach and PE teacher who grew up in Tuscaloosa playing football, baseball and basketball, comes as no surprise.

“I love the competitiveness and there’s some skill in doing it the correct way. I enjoy coaching, so I enjoy teaching the skills. But, really, the competitive nature of it made it more fun,” Ward said.

When the festival debuted in Decatur, Ward, who at the time served as the principal of Decatur High School, paddled with a group of Decatur City Schools administrators. After participating with the team Ward described as “non-athletic, but competitive,” he approached Lynn Layton, a sponsor of the event, about creating a team.

“I told him I think I could put a team together that was competitive,” Ward said.

While working out at the gym, Ward scouted out potential dragon board paddlers among individuals doing push-ups on the wall or running on the treadmill.

During the 2013 Dragon Boat Festival, the inaugural event for the Lynn Layton Cruzers, the team created by Ward placed first.

“I think some of the team is mad at me for what I put them through. We practiced in the rain,” Ward said after the competition.

The Cruzers went on to win the festival in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022. The festival was not held in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID.

In 2018, Ward, along with members of the team, traveled to China to represent the United States in the Shanghai International Suzhou Creek Invitational. The team participated in the tournament’s international division, which featured teams from France, Germany, Switzerland, Macau and three groups from China, including one consisting of professional dragon boat athletes. Compared to the Dragon Boat Festival in Decatur, which features 22-member teams, the race in China featured 13-member teams and smaller boats. Ward’steam made the 500-meter finals and finished fourth.

“The China trip was huge, but, more than anything, what I love about dragon boat is the camaraderie you build with your teammates. You’ve got 22 people competing together for the same thing. You’re pulling for each other and working together. It kind of reminds me of coaching football,” Ward said.

Eight years ago, Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing, which oversees the Decatur event, approached Ward about learning how to steer. Ward and Layton attended a steering class in Knoxville and Ward began working with the company.

“Having a coaching background, becoming a dragon boat coach and teaching others really intrigued me. Every summer, I go to races in Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and across Alabama,” Ward said.

Along with the camaraderie and the competitiveness, the reason behind the event motivates Ward.

Since debuting in 2012, the dragon boat festival has brought in more than $1 million for Decatur Morgan Hospital, said Noel Lovelace, president of the Decatur Morgan Hospital Foundation.

Proceeds have gone to oncology services, panda warmers and fetal monitors for the nursery department, EKGs and cardiac monitors for the emergency department, playground equipment at Decatur Morgan West, a mobile medical unit, defibrillators and a surgical robot. The funds from the 2023 Dragon Boat Festival will continue to finance the da Vinci surgical robot.

“The festival is doing so much good. We’re doing so much for the hospital. Everybody that competes and joins makes a really big difference for our community,” Ward said.

While the age minimum to participate in the dragon boat races is 14, no maximum exists. Most teams, excluding the high school groups, include members in their 50s and 60s.

For Ward, dragon boating represents his latest adventure. The fitness enthusiast, with his sons, hiked Yosemite National Forest, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and the Smokey Mountains, visited the Shenandoah Valley and walked from rim to rim at the Grand Canyon.

In 2012, at the age of 59, Mike joined sons Bryan and Drew Ward to climb the 14,410-high Mount Rainier, which slopes as much as 40 degrees.

On day one of the two-day climb, the Wards ascended to about 5,000 feet. They woke the next day at 1 a.m. and continue the climb. They reached the peak about 8 a.m. and returned down the mountain.

“They told us that to do this you needed to be in the best shape of your life. I was 60 years old. I wasn’t in the best shape of my life,” Ward said. “But those things, where you have to push yourself and work hard, that makes it fun for me. I love the feeling like I’m accomplishing something. No matter your age, you need to keep pushing yourself.”

For the 2023 Decatur Morgan Hospital Dragon Boat Festival, expect to see Ward coaching and leading teams during the week of practices leading up to the event on May 13 at Point Mallard Park. For more information on forming a team, visit decaturmorganfoundation.org or call 256-973-2187.