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Olson: DeKalb dragon boat team honors founder’s legacy

The Paddlin’ for MB dragon boat team practices recently on Lake Shabbona.
The Paddlin’ for MB dragon boat team practices recently on Lake Shabbona.

If you head to Shabbona Lake on a Sunday morning, chances are you’ll see a big orange boat full of people paddling across the water.

“We get a lot of looks from the fishermen,” said Josh Corn, captain of the DeKalb-based Paddlin’ for MB dragon boat team. “We definitely turn a lot of heads out there with a 40-foot orange boat cruising around.”

Corn, a member of DeKalb High School’s class of 1998 now living in Maple Park, is just one member of the 22-person dragon boat team. Now in its fourth year, the team is committed to working together to reach the pinnacle of its niche sport – and honor the legacy of the team’s founder, the late Marybeth McGill.

McGill was the aquatics director at the Kishwaukee YMCA when she met Corn several years ago. Without her, he says he never would have become involved in the sport. Not just because she recruited him for the team, but because she helped motivate him to lose half his body weight.

Corn, who’s about 5-feet 7-inches tall, weighed 346 pounds at his heaviest. But he knew he wanted to make a change and started working out at the Y, where he met McGill and started swimming as a way to burn calories.

“She just worked with me, she showed me how to do it efficiently,” Corn said. “It was more about supporting me and just holding me accountable if I missed a day.

“I didn’t want to let her down, so it just kind of snowballed.”

McGill founded the dragon boat team in 2009 after seeing another Y member working on paddling strokes. They started out competing in local races, including one in St. Charles. They compete as a mixed-gender team, which requires they have at least eight women alongside the men powering the boat.

That’s how Maggie Turza of Cortland got involved two years ago. They recruited her when they were looking for more female members, and she said she’s been hooked on paddling since the first time she stepped into a boat.

“It’s definitely one of those things that once you’re involved with it, you just kind of become addicted,” Turza said. “I think as an adult, it’s very rare when you get an opportunity to be part of a team that’s serious.”

Dragon boats are rooted in Chinese culture. They’re long and narrow, and feature ornate carved heads at the bow and curled tails at the stern. Some are decorated with scales along the sides, as well.

A team includes 10 pairs of paddlers, a drummer to keep them in time, and a sternsman who steers the boat. The goal is for everyone to be in sync – no one person can try to do too much to carry the team.

“Twenty people have to compete as one, and that’s the only way you’ll find success,” Corn said. “I love that no matter how big and strong you are, you’re only as good as the rest of your teammates.”

The group started out small, practicing in the pool at the Y, competing in local races – the average race lasts about two minutes and covers anywhere from 300 to 500 meters – but they’ve kept raising their sights. They raced for two years under the name “Flying Ears” – a play on the famous DeKalb corn logo. But then McGill, their leader, developed lung cancer.

The members of the team she founded decided to dedicate their efforts to her from that point on. They changed their name to “Paddlin for MB.”

The team members each have their own bright orange shirts – Barbs orange, of course – featuring the DeKalb corn logo, too.

“Our shirts say ‘no one fights alone,’ and I think that’s one of the biggest things,” Turza said. “Everyone was there for Marybeth, and until she passed away, she had a group of people to support and love her, and that was the point of renaming the team was to show her all these people are here for you and will do what they can to make you smile.”

McGill died in 2012, not long after the Paddlin for MB team won its race at the boat races in St. Charles. The team, which includes McGill’s husband Lance McGill, continues to pay tribute to her memory.

So do the other team members. They are: Corey Carter, Eddie Casino, Jackie Decleene, Holly Durst, Craig Littlefield, drummer Kris Littlefield, Darrell Paulsen, Dave Rivera, Chris Ryan, Rachel Schmit, Andrea Shacklee, Travis Shafer, Jesse Sheehan, Nancy Starr, Heather Titre, Jess White, Shellie White, Carrie Williams and Fred Williams.

In November the team purchased its own boat from an owner in Vancouver, Canada, and christened it “Proud Mary.” It also has a new coach, Cristine Kao, who has worked with other paddling teams in the region and has really helped the team raise its game, both Turza and Corn said.

Turza said the paddling is good exercise, and its an activity that most anyone of any age can do. Even if you’re not interested in serious competition, there could be a spot for you with the Flying Ears team.

“We’re always looking for people to come and try it out,” Turza said. “If you’re a fitness buff who loves being outdoors and exercises that’s great. If you’re a retiree who wants to be active, that’s great, too.”

Anyone interested should check out the Paddlin for MB page on Facebook, or email

Paddlin for MB will be in its final race this year Sept. 21. in Oshkosh, Wis. Its long-term goal is to reach the nationals in 2015.

But it will take a lot of effort, and a lot of Sunday mornings out on Lake Shabbona.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, and follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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