They used to be farmers and factory workers in rural China. Now, they are world champions in the sport known as dragon boating.
Meet the dragon boat “aunties team.” They got their nickname because many of its members are women over the age of 40.
When they were growing up, women weren’t allowed to touch dragon boats because it was considered bad luck.
But now, they are beating teams half their age in competitions around the world.
“We’re not athletes to begin with,” says Dong Aili, one of the team’s members. “We were all fish farmers. Then suddenly, bam, we’re at the top of the podium, getting a gold medal.”
Dragon boating is a team sport that originated in China but now has competitions all over the world.
It involves usually 18 to 20 people paddling in sync to move a long boat. The sport requires incredible strength and precise rhythm.
The world’s top women’s team is a motley crew of former farmers and factory workers in the town of Jiujiang in southern China.
They have won multiple international championships, including gold and silver at the Asian Games, one of the highest levels of competition in the sport.
“Our opponents used to look down on us because of our age,” Dong says.
Her teammate, Pan Huizhu, recalls that other teams would laugh at them because many of them were in their 40s and 50s.
“They didn’t think we’d be that fast,” Pan says. “But then we grabbed all the gold medals!”
“In the end, they all wanted to take photos with us!”
The team can owe much of their success to growing up around water.
The town’s name, Jiujiang, literally means “nine rivers,” and it used to be connected by waterways when Dong was a kid.
For the families here, boats were the main means of transportation, and everyone learned how to paddle when they were young.
“So these women have developed a strong instinct for water,” says Zhu Wenquan, the head coach, “much better than others.”
By competing and winning medals, the women are breaking traditional stereotypes about the sport.
“People say sports are for the young, but we’re still competing in our 40s,” Dong says. “I guess you can say it’s already quite extraordinary.”
“When our team competes and wins gold, we’re challenging traditional views,” she says. “We show that women can also compete like men, and come in first, too.