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Dragon boat racing just another challenge for fire inspector

Northwest Guardian

Published: 02:21PM May 1st, 2014

Will Silva had no idea what a dragon boat was when his friend volunteered him to be on the Olympia Fire Department’s team less than four weeks before the start of St. Martin’s University’s Ninth Annual Dragon Boat Festival at the state Capitol, Saturday.

“She just texted me, ‘hey by the way, I volunteered you to be a part of the dragon boat races,’ I was like ‘okay’ and showed up to practice two days later,” Silva said.

Although many might have shied away from such a request, Silva, a fire inspector at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said he never turns down a new challenge or experience, even when his career as a fireman ended after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident.

“It was my day off, I was on my brand new Harley in a turning lane waiting, and this truck just hit me going about 45 and took my foot off,” Silva said. “I ended up over there and he over here with my mangled bike. There went my firefighting career.”

Although such a devastating change in his life could have limited him, he spends all his free time doing new things and being active.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life; I do anything that’s open to me,” Silva said.

He still rides motorcycles, whitewater rafts, knee boards, hikes, golfs, does archery, runs in races, snowboards, wakeboards, does events like the Spartan Race and the Mud Run and much more.

“He picks up stuff so fast, is the nicest person and always has such a positive attitude,” said Sally Jones, an emergency medical technician in Olympia and a close friend of Silva’s. “He just never lets someone tell him he can’t do something.”

This keeps him busy, and he said that time flies because he’s always having fun.

“Even if it’s raining, even if it’s snowing, I’m active,” Silva said. “Last month me and my girlfriend didn’t have one weekend off that we weren’t doing something.”

He’s always rounding up his friends to get together, and encouraging all those around him to get out as well. He even recently started playing tennis again, a sport he was very good at before the accident.

“I used to be really, really good,” Silva said. “I used to play at such a high level that I thought it was going to frustrate me, but I am playing again now.”

He said that the accident actually sent his life in a new direction, and he didn’t want to sit around anymore and now appreciates life more.

“Oddly enough after it happened, I would try whatever came around; I wanted to see what I was capable of,” Silva said. “Like before, I lived near the beach and never learned to surf, well I learned to surf after I lost my leg.”

So being in a long boat with an intimidating dragon head in the front definitely suited him. However, he had no idea how hard paddling in a 4,000-pound boat really was until he tried it.

“We were practicing and it looked like a short distance, but wow!” Silva said. “When we were done, I was sore the next day; it kicked my butt. I’ve always had something pulling me, towing me, throwing me, or carrying me, but this was different.”

Dragon boats, human-powered long boats, are rooted in Chinese tradition. Rival villages raced one another in these boats for more than 2,000 years in Southern China. Now an international sport and celebration, participants and on lookers all over the world can appreciate the sport, as well as celebrate culture and diversity.

The OFD invited Silva because they needed more people for their 22-man boat, including 20 rowers, one drummer to keep everyone in rhythm and one steersman. They wanted their team, Blazing Paddles, to consist of firefighters, past and present.

“It’s not like you just get in a canoe and start rowing, there’s specific ways to actually row to get more power,” Silva said. “No matter how weak or strong you are, it’s the culmination of everybody in the boat.”

Last year the OFD placed third, but had higher aspirations this year.

During the race, Silva was placed near the front. His face scrunched with determination as his team crossed the finish line in first place during their third race. They had been first in all three races thus far, and only had one more to go.

“That was the closest race yet,” Silva said.

Even though it was cold and windy, Silva’s team kept their winning streak. They took first place overall in the community teams category (for beginner teams), but surprisingly, their race time actually surpassed the first place intermediate team’s time. They rowed 250 meters in only 1 minute 20 seconds. For a boat filled with beginners, they knew what they were doing.

Although Silva enjoyed the experience, he said he’s so busy with other stuff he probably wont become and avid dragon boat racer, but encourages others to try it. There are many dragon boat teams and organizations in Washington that people can join.

Silva said his next challenge is to go bear hunting with his bow and arrow, or whatever else comes his way.