It’s not uncommon for Roberta Piercy to be on the water six days a week.
That devotion recently landed the Coupeville resident a spot on the roster of the Team USA Senior B women’s dragon boat team.
Piercy, 57, was one of 24 paddlers nationwide who were hand-picked to represent the USA in the women’s 50-plus division that will compete in the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in China in August.
She earned the spot after an impressive showing at a qualifying camp in San Diego last month, turning in the second-fastest time during time trials.
“It’s incredibly exciting. It’s an honor,” Piercy said. “Looking at me six years ago, this never would have been on my horizon.”
Piercy credits her newfound sport and its supportive environment with helping her cope with grief and overcome physical barriers.
She underwent double knee-replacement surgery in 2010, followed by the death of her husband in 2012 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
She lost her mother a year later, then would slowly come to find inspiration and comfort from people she hardly knew involved in a team sport on the water.
“Once my husband passed away in 2012, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get myself strong again but what can I do?’” Piercy said. “I can’t horseback ride anymore. I was heavily involved with horses. I can’t run. I checked off all the things I can’t do and what I was left with had to be low impact.”
She learned about a dragon boat club with two teams that practiced out of the Oak Harbor marina.
She joined one of the teams, Team Tsunami, which fueled her competitive drive and led her to seek even greater skills and knowledge and more intense workouts from a team based in Seattle.
In three years, Piercy shed more than 30 pounds and strengthened her core and upper body while also lifting her spirits.
“This is probably one of the most sociable, sportsmanlike activities that I’ve ever found,” Piercy said. “I was on softball teams before and we were really gung ho. It was not nearly as supportive between teams. And just the whole environment at festivals and races, it’s really different.”
Piercy also credits that to dragon boat racing’s connection to the breast cancer survivor movement. Many breast cancer survivors have found physical and emotional benefits from the paddling sport and the camaraderie built around it.
“It’s just got a different vibe to it,” Piercy said.
That vibe has led her on quite a journey.
In March, she and fellow Coupeville resident Cathie Harrison will represent WAM, the Washington State women’s masters team, at the Pan American Crew Club Championships in Puerto Rico.
They will compete on 10-man boats instead of the usual 20-man in two different divisions — Piercy on the mixed B team (five men, five women, ages 50-59) and Harrison, 71, on the all women’s C team (60-69).
Last April, Piercy, Harrison and Coupeville’s Pennie Rees were part of a 50-plus WAM team that qualified for the Club Crew World Championships in Adelaide, Australia.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Harrison said of the Pan American Championships. “I’ve never been in an older category, a C category. I’m pretty excited about being able to race in that group. It’s hard competing against people 20 years younger than you.”
In dragon boat racing, odd years are reserved for world championship events that feature individual qualifiers whereas even years are designated for team entries.
Piercy learned about the opportunity to make the USA team on her own only about a week before time trials were set to take place in Portland in October.
“I thought, ‘What the heck. It’s right down the road. My daughter’s down there. I’ll just go and see how I’ll do,’” Piercy said.
It was only the second time she had paddled aboard a shorter, one-man outrigger, but she performed well enough to earn an invitation to the Team USA Senior B Camp in San Diego.
In San Diego, she was the first to go out on the water for a time trial and recorded a time that held up as the best until the final day.
The trip to Southern California also gave the Team USA coach an opportunity to see first-hand how well candidates paddled together and examined their techniques.
In the end, those who made the team were determined by a variety of factors, including fitness level assessments that must be monitored at home and sent in frequently.
Piercy said she loves the water sport and enjoys just being on the water. It feels like home to her. She moved to Whidbey in 1994 and resides near Penn Cove.
“When my mom passed away in 2013, we did a ceremony out here on the water for her because she was originally from New Zealand,” Piercy said. “She lived in Hawaii for 25 years where I was born, and here on Whidbey Island. The water was what connected her to all of her places where she lived and that’s kind of how I feel, too.”
n The Washington Masters (WAM) dragon boat team is seeking sponsors to help with costs of sending two teams to the Pan American Crew Club Championships in Puerto Rico in March. Coupeville’s Roberta Piercy and Cathie Harrison are part of those teams. Those interested in helping may contact Cathie Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org