Standing among the bright blue and yellow balloons flying at the Balmy Beach Canoe Club’s year-end rally, kayaker Draga Culjak said it’s easy to see why her club is fielding three of the six paracanoe athletes representing Canada this week at the World Championships in Duisburg, Germany.
“You have to have a good coach, and we have a great coach,” she said. “We are the biggest para club in Canada.”
When she joined the Balmy Beach three years ago, Culjak said she was just looking for a new way to stay active.
She started as a rower, but switched to kayaking on the advice of fellow para athlete Papito More-Wilson. Starting in a Sunday class for beginner kayakers, she had no idea then that she would one day be training six days a week, or travelling with More-Wilson and Suleiman Muse to Germany to compete in the K1 200-metre race at a World Championship.
The turning point, she said, was when her coach Mari Ellery encouraged her to try a week-long training camp at Lake Placid. Ellery, who has been part of sprint racing since 1971, knew how far Culjak could go.
“I think it was just that reception,” Cujak said. “I felt like I was wanted, and I saw that there was going to be support.”
Supports of all kinds were evident at the BBCC send-off on Tuesday night, from the well wishes going to national team kayaker K.C. Fraser as she gets set to compete in Duisburg, the 40 young paddlers going to nationals in Montreal, the 13 masters-level paddlers going to CanMas and paddlers competing at a dragon boat race in Victoria.
Grants director Beverley Plante said this year was a strong one for the club, which had 700 children registered in its summer sports and paddling camps and 14 new boats for them to learn on.
Thanks to a $149,200 Trillium Grant given to the club in 2012, the BBCC added a total of 28 boats to its fleet, including an open-cockpit K2 for the paracanoe program and a new truck to tow them with.
The lighter, more stable boats for the young paddlers means its easier for Atoms, PeeWees and Bantams to step up in skill.
Getting ready to fly from the dragon boat race Victoria to watch her daughter Haley compete at Montreal, Plante said she expected the BBCC to face some tough competition.
“You’re with the best,” she said. “You cross the finish line and they’re all nose-on-nose. It’s a photo finish.”