At the blast of the horn, the dragon boat racers paddled furiously with brute force, determination and focus.
Nearly 7,000 athletes, gathering to celebrate the 25th Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, huffed and puffed as they raced towards the finish line out in the waters at Center Island in the Canadian city of Toronto over the weekend.
The festive spirit was palpable, as teams -- who were either preparing for their big race, or just finishing for the day -- sat in circles doing group warmups and played games. One particularly excited group paraded around the race grounds dragging a makeshift dragon boat, while dancing to the loud music blasting from their stereo.
As one of the largest dragon boat festivals of its kind outside Asia, the Toronto event drew in throngs of people to the island. The Toronto Chinese Business Association, who has been hosting the event since 1989, says they're estimating about 80,000 spectators to come out for the festivities.
Organizer David Wong calls it the biggest event of the season.
"It's the first big event in Ontario to kick off the summer," he said. "It's a good platform for multiculturalism, so people can network and have fun."
Similar to outrigger canoes, dragon boats originated from south central China more than 2,500 years ago for annual water rituals, festival celebrations and the traditional veneration of the Asian dragon water deity.
The festival, which started as a way to promote the tradition and the sport of dragon boating, has come a long way. Wong said they only had 27 teams in the race in their very first year. This year, nearly 200 local, national and international teams are taking part in the races -- a 10 per cent increase from last year.
"The growth is phenomenal, we see people from all over the country, from the States, from the Caribbeans, from Europe, they're participating in today's race right here," said Wong.
It's not all fun and games. While each of the 150 races going on throughout the weekend only lasts a few minutes, it's an intense workout for the 20 or so paddlers on every boat.
Vladimir Kluev, who coaches the University of Waterloo's dragon boat racing club's five teams, said it's much harder than it looks.
"When you do a 2K turn, it's really quite difficult, you really got to be put your weight on the oar," he explained. "You have to really just focus on something far way on land and just try to
steer towards it, 'cause if you start looking at the other boats, eventually it's just going to turn towards where you're looking."
As soon as they're on the boat, Kluev said he's constantly screaming, trying to get his teams in sync, and pushing them for their best.
"You got to be able to bring them up when they're down, and you got to put them in check when they're getting too cocky or when they're not giving their all," he said.
He says the great workout and team mentality aspect of the sport is what brings him into the waters to practice nearly six days a week.
The sport also means a lot more than just being a great physical challenge to some, like Montreal resident Ruth Bernhaut. The breast cancer survivor has been competing for the last 10 years. She said it was something that helped her through the most difficult time of her life.
At the start of her chemo and radiation treatment, Bernhaut was constantly being told to "take it easy" and not to overexert herself. But it did more harm than good.
"I began to feel like I was going to be able to do less and less, and I had to get going with life again," she said.
Since discovering the sport, Bernhaut joined the Two Abreast team, made up of 20 breast cancer survivors liker herself. She's been travelling with the team all across the world to compete in a sport she's grown to love.
At the end of the day, for many racers, it's not just about winning the event.
"I don't think the feeling of winning is ultimately the things that I'm striving for," said Kluev. "It's more the feeling of having 20 people synchronized and just giving it your all, having that burn in your muscles, but you don't even feel it because there's just so much adrenaline and it's the best feeling ever."
Besides the races, there's also tons of cultural activities and events going on at the festival, including performances and a variety of ethnic food booths.