How an unusual paddle sport changed Hildren Francis' life forever
Hildren Francis felt as though her life was falling apart.
She had set aside her work as an attorney to stay home and raise three daughters. Her focus was her family. Then her marriage began unraveling -- at the same time her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She felt lost and helpless.
"Suddenly I'm a single woman, girls in high school and middle school, and my mom is dying," says Francis a decade later, now 53. "It was a very tough time for me. I knew I had to start doing something that redefined me. I wanted to have an outlet. I had lost my outlet, inactive in my career for quite a while by then."
That's when a couple of friends convinced her to try a unique type of canoe racing -- and changed her life.
Francis, living in Tampa, Florida, at the time, had seen dragon boats glide up and down the Hillsborough River but had never wanted to get on one of the long, slim craft, each adorned with a dragon's head in front and tail in back. But once her dragon boat-racing pals invited her aboard for a training session, that changed. With a paddle in her hands, she had a purpose.
"I got sucked in, in a good way," she says.
She looked forward to every scheduled practice. She threw herself into it, soaking up techniques. She had always been ultra-competitive and a good athlete while growing up in Puerto Rico -- and she caught on fast. "It was a wonderful outlet for me to discover something that I really liked, and I was pretty good at it quickly," she recalls.
Over the next few years, Francis became part of the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Club and went to several dragon boat world championship regattas. In the process, she put her life back on track. She volunteered at a legal services organization that aids immigrants and became a vice president for the nonprofit Tampa Bay's Child that provides support to children of migrant farm workers.
To paddle on a dragon boat is to be part of a large, finely-tuned team. Standard boats have 20 paddlers, 10 on each side, with a person to steer in the back and a drummer up front to keep the beat. Dragon boats date back centuries in China, but now are raced around the globe.
The club gave Francis new friends and a sense of community. Plus, she could immerse herself in the camaraderie and rhythm. As a girl, her first love had been dance, and from it she developed a sense of movement, balance and timing. She eventually dropped it in favor of swimming when her dance teacher complained her back "was getting too big" from the thousands of strokes she took in the water. But on the dragon boat, the rhythm, timing and strength she had gained from those two activities helped her adapt.
You can have a crew of super strong people that looks super buff ... but they get on a dragon boat and if their timing is off, a crew of very old people that looks skinny and weak will beat them by a lot.Hildren Francis
"The good thing about dragon boating, you get very in tune with how important the timing is, the synchronicity of people paddling exactly in the same manner, same technique," she says.
"The timing has to be impeccable. You can have a crew of super strong people that looks super buff, and their perfect gym bodies, but they get on a dragon boat and if their timing is off, a crew of very old people that looks skinny and weak will beat them by a lot. So it's all about that synchronicity and technique."
Francis was part of crews that competed in five world championships (held by two federations) from 2010 to 2015, while also paddling in a World Cup event in China, an international dragon boat festival in Hong Kong and a crew championship in Italy. Her biggest thrill was being on the winning USA team in the 1K race in Szeged, Hungary, at the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in 2013.
Francis still talks about her love of dragon boats. But it turns out dragon boating was the first of a two-step process. After being introduced to outrigger canoes at her club one day about four years ago, Francis made the switch and now races outriggers, particularly one-person boats called outrigger canoe singles (OC1s). She brought everything she learned from dragon boats to outriggers, especially the importance of timing and keeping a smooth pace.
"It's very rhythmic," she says. "It can't be all over the place. You're going to lose the glide. The canoe likes rhythm. The canoe responds to a certain rhythm. You can't be up and down and acting crazy. You have to have consistency to feel the glide."
Every day from her home in Tarpon Springs, she can paddle out to the ocean, a nearby lagoon or up the Anclote River. She's also a member of the Kai Aniani Canoe Club in Clearwater, and joins a group of friends, mostly men, three times a week off Crystal Beach to paddle and push one another. They do "pyramid" workouts, paddling hard for two, four, six, eight, 10 and 12 minutes, with a minute of rest in between. She says it's "the bomb."
"We meet in our OC1s and OC2s to beat each other up and have a wonderful time while at it," she says. "I lovingly call them the 'Crystal Beach Boys.'"
Francis paddles two to three hours a day, about six days a week. She likes to compete and win, but her primary enjoyment is the process.
"Hard work pays off in sports," she says. "But there's a certain strength that comes with time and patience. It's more subtle than hard work. It happens without you necessarily being aware of it. That's what I'm after. I want to be strong not because I work harder than anybody else, but because I've been patient and I've spent my time on the water."
All that time on the water helped Francis win the women's OC1 title in 2016 at the U.S. Canoe Association National Championships on the Connecticut River in Northfield, Massachusetts. Over a 14-mile course, Francis finished first in the 50-59 age group, winning by 20 seconds in 2 hours, 18 minutes, 57 seconds. Her time was best among all women's groups.
"For me, I paddled the perfect race," she says. She managed to keep gliding even while having to clear weeds from her rudder several times and fix a problem with her hydration system. In April, she won the 50-over title in the Shark Bite Challenge, a prestigious event in Dunedin Beach.
She also does marathon races in two-person canoes that cover 60 to 70 miles and take upward of nine hours. The races are as much a mental as physical challenge. The key, Francis says, is to "do the best you can and that you are going to enjoy it every step of the way no matter what. No matter how it feels, you're going to make it work."
She'll do anything to keep paddling as long as possible. She's just grateful she found what she was looking for at that crisis point almost 10 years ago. The water has been her catalyst for change.
"I love being in touch with nature," she says. "For me it becomes like a mind, body, spirit experience. It really grounds me and it balances me. I feel alive in a different way and it carries through the rest of the day."