Our Neighbors...Cloquet art teacher headed to Dragon Boat WorldsA person doesn’t need to see Cloquet High School art teacher Julie Deters on the water to know her favorite sport.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
A person doesn’t need to see Cloquet High School art teacher Julie Deters on the water to know her favorite sport. You don’t have to admire her well defined arm and shoulder muscles, or find out that the Maori hook she wears as a pendant means “safety on the water.” You don’t even have to know that she somehow managed to become No. 1 in the world last winter on the Concept 2 rowing machine in the 2013 indoor rowing season.
All you have to do is drive behind her and read the license plate.
“We Kanu” it says.
A previous vanity plate read: “Qajaq” (which means “kayak” in Inuit).
Be it racing canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes, the rowing machine or the dragon boat, Julie Deters is all about paddling.
Especially in a dragon boat.
For those unfamiliar with the traditional Chinese boat, a dragon boat is a human-powered boat that was originally made of teak wood to various designs and sizes. According to www.wikiwikiwahine.org, it is one of a family of traditional long boats found throughout Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. It is now used in the team paddling sport of dragon boat racing which originated in China over 2,000 years ago. While competition has taken place annually for more than 20 centuries as part of folk ritual, it emerged in modern times as an international sport in Hong Kong in 1976.
The Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival — where Julie and her husband, Ron Deters, started in the sport — began 12 years ago.
At the time, Ron was the Duluth Boat Club program director and in charge of teaching all the dragon boat teams how to paddle and steer the boats. The standard crew complement of a contemporary dragon boat is around 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, one drummer (or caller) at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and one sweep or helmsman at the rear of the boat.
Their co-ed team was called the Stone Dragons, and Julie became the lead pacer.
“The idea is that everyone paddles in perfect synchronicity,” Julie explained. “You need to get to the point where you don’t need to think, it’s just kind of in your muscle memory.”
The Stone Dragons won the Lake Superior Festival every year they entered except the first, she added. After the first couple years, Ron (on behalf of the Duluth Boat Club) purchased three “OC-6” canoes, aka outrigger canoes. The advantage of the OC-6, he knew, was that it only took six people to propel the boat instead of 20.
Pretty soon, Julie started a women’s outrigger training group, which grew to about 60 women after three years.
So she formed an all-women outrigger racing team to compete at other regional events. They called themselves “Mahi Wahine,” which translates as “strong women” in Hawaiian.
With the success of Mahi Wahine, an all-women dragon boat racing team was born. Named Wikiwiki Wahine, the new name meant “speedy women.”
Philosophically, the reason for the new team was to inspire other women to push themselves physically. The new team was also born out of a fierce competitive spirit, something Julie Deters has in plentiful supply (as illustrated by the rowing machine title).
“We wanted to give ‘Women on Fire’ a run for their money,” Julie said, with a chuckle, describing the women’s team from Thunder Bay as mostly young girls with fiery scarves wrapped around their waists.
Wikiwiki Wahine had little problem dousing Women on Fire at the regional competitions in Grand Marais. Not in Superior, however, because Ron, Julie and a number of other team members returned to the Stone Dragons for the Lake Superior festival each year.
For about three years, that was how it went. In fact, Julie said, Wikiwiki Wahine mostly competed against mixed, or co-ed, teams because there were no other women’s competitive teams.
Then Ron — who coached the team — started comparing Wikiwiki’s time to other teams around the world and found they weren’t far off. As a team, the group decided to push even harder and train for nationals in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Wikiwiki roared through the competition.
“Even though the average age of our team is mid-40s, we competed in the Premiere (elite) Division,” Julie said, noting the team had members ranging from ages 16 through 71. “We won every single race we were in until the last one.”
That was a 1,000-meter race, something Wikiwiki had never done before. Although they placed second in that close race, it didn’t matter, because Wikiwiki Wahine already had the championship sewn up.
It was quite an achievement for the little team from Duluth, Minn., surrounded by teams from cities such as Philadelphia, where dragon boat racing enjoys much greater participation and support.
“I really attribute [our success] to Ron and his coaching,” Julie said of her husband, who’s been racing canoes and kayaks since he was 12 and placed second at the National Canoe and Kayak Championships in 2006. “He’s really knowledgeable about exercise physiology and what to do to prep for a race.
“I’d say he guides us more than he pushes us,” she added. “I push myself plenty.”
Love and paddling
When they first met in college, it was Ron who was the paddler.
“I liked paddling right away,” said Julie, who ran track in high school. “All Ron had was a racing canoe, but it was really low key [canoeing together]. Racing was his thing.”
She would go to canoe races to support him, but didn’t compete herself.
“It was like a big family reunion,” Julie said. “Canoe racers are really solid folk.”
Then they decided to try a race together and discovered they made a really good team.
“I realized my body could do that,” she said.
Canoe racing was her first paddling passion, dragon boat racing came later.
In the meantime, she and Ron got married — they honeymooned by going sea kayaking in the Apostle Islands — then moved to Madison for a time while they looked for jobs in the Duluth area.
“Ron was very familiar with the water in northern Minnesota,” she said, noting that he had led Boundary Waters canoe trips and worked for a dog musher in the region after college. “We move up here on $6 an hour.”
That was 1991.
After renting a one-room cabin in the outskirts of Duluth for a time, they bought a house and 56 acres in Alborn, Minn. Pretty soon they had 10 sled dogs and a couple of sleds.
“We had a lot of fun tooling around the trails,” Julie said, adding that she was teaching in Cloquet by this time and commuted about 100 miles a day back and forth to work.
Then, when she was 30, she got pregnant with their first child, Sam (now a senior in high school).
“We had to make a choice,” she said. “It was either Sam or the dogs.”
Sam won. They gave away or sold their dogs and found a new home in the Fond du Lac neighborhood in western Duluth, a gorgeous spot right on the St. Louis River.
Sylvie came along three years later. A freshman next year at Cloquet High School, Sylvie has inherited her mother’s artistic talents, while both kids are athletes like their parents and smart to boot.
Although Sylvie gently teases her mom about her buff arms, Julie said part of what keeps her competing is being a role model for both her children and her students. She wants them to know that women can compete at high levels at any age.
“I remember when I first started getting back into more of a fitness routine after having kids, I’d be a little embarrassed about my muscles,” Julie said. “It seemed like it wasn’t quite as acceptable [as it is today]. In time, though, the students would just say ‘That’s who Ms. Deters is — Ms. Deters is strong.’
“The really positive thing is that girls started saying ‘I want to be buff like Ms. Deters when I’m old,’” she added. “And boys started to show more respect for me as an athlete.”
Of course, competing at a national and international level hasn’t diminished that respect.
Unfortunately for Wikiwiki Wahine, the year they won Nationals was the first time the U.S. organization didn’t simply send the winning team as a group to the international competition. Instead, there were tryouts and a national coach who made the final team selection for Worlds.
As a unit, the team qualified to go to the Club Crew championships in Hong Kong the next year. Unable to raise the full $100,000 to go, however, they eventually had to decline.
However, eight women from Wikiwiki made different Team USA teams for the world competition — held in Tampa, Fla., in 2011 — as well as Ron.
Julie made the Senior A (40 and older) mixed team and Ron was on the Open men’s team.
She said it was an incredible experience.
“It was a really beautiful thing to be a part of,” she said. “It felt really natural. The stroke rate, the energy in the boat, everything just felt right.
“It’s amazing when you’re in a group of people with the same passion and they’re working just as hard as you are — it really lifts you up. You put 100 percent of your energy and passion into it and you know that everyone is right there with you.”
Her team medaled in every race at Tampa, bringing home two silver and two bronze medals.
Back in the Northland last summer, Wikiwiki Wahine set a record a little closer to home, posting the fastest time of the day at the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival. Although they took second in the final race by a hair, Julie said the team made history.
“We were the first women’s team to have the fastest time,” she said, explaining that the time came in an earlier heat. “It was funny, because the announcers didn’t make a big deal of it. I think they expect it of us. But it is a big deal. Look at us, we’re a bunch of middle-aged women. Make it a big deal.
“It’s not about me, it’s not even about the team. It’s about women kicking butt.”
After narrowly missing a seat on the Premier women’s team — even though she beat the other candidate by more than two seconds (it’s a long story) — Julie was again selected to compete on the Senior A mixed team as well as first alternate on Premiere Women's in the world competition this summer in Szeged, Hungary.
She plans to compete hard, as usual. This time Ron is staying home with the kids.
“So often women say, ‘I’m a mom, I can’t do that,’” Julie said. “Wikiwiki Wahine is a symbol of ‘Yes, you can.’ You make a choice. This is what the mid-40s looks like. We’re kicking butt.”