John Thistelton squeezes into a tiny seat at the head of the boat with drumsticks in his hands, hoping not to fall in.
The instructor calls for attention, raising his hands to silence the chatter as more than a dozen racers hold their wooden paddles high above their heads.
When given the signal, Thistelton, 79, starts the beat slowly, matching each drum strike with the racers' pace.
Boom ... One! Boom ... Two! Boom ... Three! Boom ... Four!
The group begins to pick up speed, and before long the racers are cruising down the Oklahoma River, pushing past the finish line.
“Come about,” coach Travis Pace shouts at them from the back of the boat. “Let's do it again.”
Janis Cramer helped put the dragon boat team together through members of the Bethany YMCA. Most of the team members are 60 years or older, and some are competing in a sport for the first time in decades.
Cramer, 65, said she felt it was a great activity to keep her healthy and fit.
“It's something older people can do,” she said.
“I'm not saying it's not strenuous because it is, but it's a good workout, and it's fun and you get to know people because it's a community effort.”
Dragon boat racing is a water sport that has roots dating back 2,000 years in southern China. Traditionally, the nearly 60-foot-long boats are dressed with fierce dragon heads, colorful bodies and elaborate tails. The trademark of the sport is the drummer that sits on board the boat to hammer out a beat that the participants follow.
The team from Bethany plans to compete in the Stars & Stripes River Festival on June 29 as just one of two noncorporate teams. Nearly half of the money needed to compete was raised by the members, and the other half was matched by the YMCA.
John Imel, 74, said he competed in nearly every sport growing up, and that dragon boat racing requires just as much teamwork as any of them.
“If one guy messes up, then it messes up the whole boat, so everyone has to be accountable,” he said. “When we are all doing it together, it feels really good working as a team. We may not win the regatta, but we will be in there trying. Never give up.”
The group from Bethany has 22 members, enough to fill two boats. Normally they practice at Lake Overholser, but because of recent storms flooding the area, they were forced to move to the river.
“This is something we are all really enjoying,” Cramer said.
“It's even gotten our husbands off the couch. There's just something about feeling the wind through your hair and the mist of the water spraying, it makes me feel strong and healthy.”
Pace, 16, works with Riversport and is the coach for the Bethany YMCA team. He pushes the team harder than one might think considering most of the participants are nearly 50 years older than he is.
“They are definitely overcoming the limitations that I thought they would have,” Pace said. “There is another group I coach, but they blow them out of the water.”
Cramer ended up convincing her husband, Jerry, to join her in the boat, and she said he has ended up loving it more than anyone.
“It's a great whole body workout, and it's a lot of fun,” he said. “To me, the best experience is when we are approaching the finish line and we are all going as fast as we can. It's like all of these pistons hitting simultaneously. It feels like you are powerful.”