Temple professor leads double life as dragon boat coach

Dr. Robert McNamara has been the coach of Philly’s dragon boat team since the 1980s.

Dr. Robert McNamara, chair of emergency medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and coach of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association, gives instructions from his motorboat at a practice on the Schuylkill on Oct. 7. | MARY RAGLAND / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The Schuylkill is lined with artwork and scenic views, many of which often go unnoticed.

But Dr. Robert McNamara is able to spot all of the river’s hidden treasures from his motorboat. From his mornings paddling on the river, he can point out 19th-century artist Frederic Remington’s large bronze sculpture, “Cowboy,” among other works.

McNamara, the chair of emergency medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, has served as the head coach of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association since 1986. The team practices on the Schuylkill weekly and will compete at the 2017 International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in China from Wednesday to Sunday.

Dragon boat teams are comprised of 20 team members, who race a certain distance against other teams in the fastest possible time. Dragon boat racing dates back to China more than 2,000 years ago, where the sport was superstitiously believed to promise ample crop production. In present times, dragon boat racing takes on a more competitive form internationally.

McNamara began paddling in 1984 as an opportunity to represent the United States in the Hong Kong international races, which he learned about through an advertisement in an Inquirer column by Clark DeLeon. He was in residency at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia at the time.

He had no experience with dragon boating before this, but the sport quickly became an integral part of his life.

Since the 1980s, he has led the team to various national competitions, including the World Championships, which began in 1995.

McNamara likes the competition.

“[It’s] seeing other people get better, become world champions,” McNamara said. “[They] go from people who never paddled anything [to] world champions. It’s kind of cool.”

The Philly team has 60 to 70 members who routinely attend practices.

In preparation for any competition, the team practices a minimum of five times per week as early as 5:45 a.m.

Most times, practices tend to target areas that build the team’s strengths.

“We try to focus on the longer events because the strength of our team is a little more aerobic,” McNamara said. “So we tend to focus more on the 2,000-meter and the 1,000-meter race, and [those are] our most successful races.”

McNamara said his practice tactics are effective, and Susan Lemonick, a team member, agrees. Lemonick, who has been racing with PDBA for 17 years, became involved with dragon boat racing after she read an article in a newspaper about a woman who started a women’s dragon boat team.

“I’ll tell you what, [it’s] his incredible eye and incredible memory,” Lemonick said. “He can pick something out in you, and then he can remember all of the people he’s coached over the years.”

McNamara’s coaching skills stem from his own experience, as well as a philosophy regarding the sport.

“Basically you teach [the team] the technique and then whoever works the hardest wins, which is kind of like the way the world is supposed to be,” McNamara said.

McNamara’s daughter Colleen said the sport has always been a stress reliever for her father.

Colleen McNamara, a 2014 early childhood education and English alumna, has been involved in dragon boat racing since 2003, when she was 13 years old. Now, more than a decade later at 27, she has been to more championship competitions than any other female dragon boat paddler in the U.S. and serves as PDBA’s women’s coach.

Robert McNamara’s four kids have all been involved in dragon boat racing at one point. His favorite moment as a coach is watching his kids win gold medals.

“I think he’s really direct and transparent and, you know, I’ve been cut [from races] before and I’m his daughter,” Colleen McNamara said.

He has many other moments to be proud of, too. At the 1997 World Championships in Hong Kong, the team was able to snag a gold medal in the 500-meter race. Since then, the team has won a total of 23 gold medals at the World Championships. As they prepare for the 2017 games, team members feel that the outcome is promising.

“Our boats we have this year are really comparable to what we’ve had in the past, so it should be a good team,” Colleen McNamara said.

She admits, however, that it is challenging to know what to expect from other countries.

After coaching for more than three decades, Robert McNamara couldn’t imagine his life without the sport. In fact, he attributes dragon boat racing to his success with education and medical school.

“I believe my rowing experience in college helped me get into medical school by necessitating a disciplined approach to studying and schoolwork given the time commitment of rowing,” he said. “I still feel indebted to my coaches and this is a way of giving back.”

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