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Dragonboater Marlene Bronstein Dubin ’62 hoists her own bags of mulch and once unintentionally pulled a closet door off its hinges. Four years ago, stalled by grief and physical pain, she could barely move from her chair. Dubin had turned 60 and was going “full speed ahead” in her public relations business, but when her mother and father became ill she stopped working to care for them. They died within three months of one another, and during that time Dubin herself was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor from her parathyroid gland, and broken ribs from a bout of violent coughing.

Marlene Bronstein Dubin ’62. Photo by Paola Nogueras

Then, in spring of 2002, she saw a Philadelphia newspaper ad seeking “women paddlers, no experience necessary.” In spite of not liking to swim (“in baby pictures, my sister is running into the ocean laughing, and I’m running out crying,” she says) she enjoyed being on the water when she kayaked and canoed at summer camp. After three sessions on the Schuyl­kill River in the traditional Chinese dragon boat, paddling was her passion.

Dragon boating is one of the fastest growing team sports in the world, with an estimated 20 million paddlers outside of China. There are teams for breast cancer survivors and teams that have vision-impaired paddlers. The sport is believed to have evolved in China more than 2,000 years ago as the reenactment of a legend, an annual ritual that venerates the water dragon.

The 40-foot long boats hold 20 paddlers seated in 10 rows of two, a drummer in front to call out commands as she drums to the strokes of the paddlers, and a steerer with a very long oar in the stern. The sides of the boats are often painted with scales, and ornately carved and decorated dragon’s heads and tails are attached for races.

Paddlers must not only put their blades into the water at the same time, but move through each phase of the stroke in perfect unison. The large muscles of the back, shoulders and trunk, not just of the arm, are used. It is a grueling sport.

“The synchronization of 20 paddlers, all moving as one,
is Zen-like,” Dubin says. It is also pure aggression, called “dragon fever.”

“You feel the rhythm of the stroke and the boat surging ahead,” she says. “Sometimes in practice, we paddle with our eyes closed or make the boat move just by rocking our bodies.

“There’s a lot more to dragon boating than athletics. It is a form of networking and I’ve become friends with so many people I never would have met. My teammates are bright, active, interesting and intense women who have other lives—as teachers, nurses, doctors, law enforcement officers.”

Last August, Dubin competed in the World Champion­ship Dragon Boat races in Berlin with a team representing the United States for a new 50-and-over women’s Grand Masters Division. The U.S. Dragon Boat Federation picked her team, the Philadelphia Schuylkill Dragons, to represent the nation because they had medalled the previous summer in the U.S. National Championships. Fifteen of the Schuylkill Dragons qualified for the Grand Masters and seven others were recruited nationally from Long Beach, California; Portland, Oregon; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Premier Women’s U.S. Team at Berlin. Sharine Wittkopp '01,  is seated in row 2, on the right side of the boat. Wittkopp won a bronze medal as one of 8 women on the Premier mixed team representing the U.S. Photo by Stuart Napshin

“There were only two women’s Grand Master’s teams in Berlin, so we raced against all of the younger women’s teams,” Dubin says. “We came in second in our division—of two, not that far behind, and definitely a force to be reckoned with. We were all winners just because we got there. In no sense do I consider myself a world-class athlete, but Berlin challenged me to get as good as I could. The idea of taking on a new challenge at this stage of my life and participating in a world championship of anything thrills me.”

Founded in 2000, the Schuylkill Dragons has 60 members, women ranging in age from 25 to 69. They practice on the Schuylkill River two evenings and four mornings a week from April until November, shoving off before sunrise. In the winter, team members follow individual weight-training, aerobic and cardiovascular regimes and work out together in circuit training at a gym.

The Schuylkill Dragons. Photo by Rick Fredette

“In season I lose weight from the strenuous practices; my body is stronger and more toned,” Dubin says. “I feel better about myself and stand taller. I even have a a semi-permanent tattoo when we race. Most of my teammates are younger than my children but invite me to dinner when we travel and to their parties at home. To people who know me,I’m this prim and proper Main Line woman—wife, mother and grandmother—but I lead a different life when I’m with my boat­mates, and I love both aspects of my life.”

Bryn Mawr gave me chutzpah

Dubin, whose family lived in Merion, Pennsylvania, was a resi­dent at Bryn Mawr for only a year and a half. “I was the oldest of four kids, all right in a row, and my parents had other tuitions to pay,” she says. “I had a used convertible to commute to campus. When I became president of non-resident students I’d bring my friends from the dorm home for dinner and shuttle them to the train station for holidays. I have very fond memories of college; I loved all of the traditions. And the older I get and the more I travel, the more I see how Bryn Mawr is respected around the world.”

Dubin is Reunion Co-Chair for her class, which celebrates its 45th in June 2007. “I appreciate my classmates now more than ever,” she says. “They’re so interesting—I think much more so now than when we were students.”

At Bryn Mawr, Dubin majored in economics. “Mort Bachrach was my teacher in EC 101 and I loved it; he made it so interesting,” she says. “As a kid I wanted to be an artist, but in those days it was not acceptable. After graduation, I worked for The Philadelphia City Planning Commission, and thought about going to law school, but I also wanted children right away and didn’t think I could do both.”

Dubin’s acrylic Sunset on Water.

While raising her threechildren, she did freelance and charity work, taking art courses at the Barnes Foundation, where she later taught, and at the Main Line Art Center. “Then when I was about 39 I was getting headaches all the time, and my sister, who was a teacher, said I needed to get a job and focus my energy on one thing,” she says.

Through her art connections, Dubin landed a job at the Medi­­cal College of Pennsylvania, initially to beautify an old clinic. She ended up working with architects on a new seven-story building, doing much of the design work. She also did fundraising and public relations for the building, drawing on her years of volunteer work with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

From MCP, Dubin went to Presbyterian Hospital, putting together a career in healthcare public relations. “My Bryn Mawr experience taught me how to think, learn and organize creatively,” she says. “I was really shy and lacked confidence when I came to Bryn Mawr. After four years there, BMC made me feel I could do anything.Now I’m not afraid to tackle anything new—you know what the word ‘chutzpah’ means?”

“My other life begins in late fall, when we load the dragon boats and launch onto a tractor trailer and say goodbye for the winter. Then I paint in my studio and take a class one day a week. Like dragon boating, it takes me to another place.” Dubin shows her work throughout the region, often with her brother, Ed Bronstein, an artist and architect. She has become fascinated by the bridges that cross the Schuylkill River, and has done several series of them. “Paddling towards, through, around and beneath them at sunrise, twilight and in darkness allows me to see their soaring concrete and steel pillars, jutting beams, decorative ironwork, broad stone piers, dark, wet footing and structural underpinnings,” she writes. “These images and the echoing sounds are etched in my soul.”

“I’d been told by several accomplished older women whom I admire that their sixties are the most creative decade for women, and for me, they really are,” she says. “I became an artist, what I really wanted to be since I was a child. I mastered a new sport and represented the United States at 65!

Dubin’s pastel Bridge Series #15.

“Every year I say, ‘I’m not going to compete anymore, I’m just going to be a recreational paddler,’ but something happens when you get out there. The excitement of the races, the travel, the new and different river or lake—the adrenalin just kicks in. What’s the sense of all this practice if you’re not going to race and win? My goal is to do it until I’m 70.”

 

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