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Glide with the Dueling Dragons

Featured Photo from Glide with the Dueling Dragons

Lake Mary filmmakers capture the magic of the Dueling Dragons, a boat-racing program that connects cops with inner-city kids.

When local filmmaker Gina Watson first learned about the Dueling Dragons of Orlando, she knew it was a story that needed to be told on the big screen. 

The program, which is part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida, pairs inner-city, low-income teens with officers from the Orlando Police Department to build something much more powerful than just a competitive dragon-boat racing team. 

Dragon-boat racing is an ancient Chinese sport and one of the fastest growing water sports here in America. Twenty paddlers pack into a 41-foot-long boat and work in unison to reach the finish line in the fastest time. For Gina, the Dueling Dragons’ unique equation of teaming cops with inner-city kids equaled a compelling narrative about breaking down stereotypes, building trust, and bridging the gap between law enforcement and the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

“I was so inspired by the program and fell in love with it,” says Gina. “It was interesting to observe the relationships forming. Dragon-boat racing is all about being in sync. You have to learn teamwork and how to communicate. This program is not about winning, but the competition and exertion can be intense, and you witness them going through something together as one.”

Gina and her husband Brett worked together over a three-month period to direct, write, and produce the full-length documentary titled Dueling Dragons. The pro-bono project, sponsored through a generous grant from the Kiwanis Club of Orlando Foundation, followed the kids and cops from weekly training to competition, capturing all the magic happening in between. Footage from years past was also weaved into the film to tell incredible stories of victory, hardship, and even tragedy when one of the team’s very own police mentors, Lieutenant Debra Clayton, was gunned down and killed while confronting a murder suspect.

“Debra was so loved,” says Gina. “Though I never got to meet her, there were times I felt like she was there in the editing room guiding me. She was a big part of the kids’ lives, and they were so committed to honoring her life through the program.”

With the help of several community partners, the Dueling Dragons team was formed in 2011 and has since evolved from a volunteer-led, privately-funded effort to a full-fledged program of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida. The affiliation has also given rise to the Orlando Fire Dragons, a new team of low-income youth and Orlando firefighters.

“The big goal of the documentary Dueling Dragons was to showcase what the program is about and encourage people to do something similar in their own communities,” says Gina. “I think there’s a life and an audience for this film.”

The documentary debuted on Amazon Prime Video last November and is free to watch for Prime members. It was also an official selection for the Global Peace Film Festival and the Nepal America Film Society.

“My hope is that the film serves as an inspirational tool to motivate other communities to replicate the program and to share the vision that kids from the ’hood are not bad – nor are police officers,” says Andrea Eliscu, founder of Dueling Dragons of Orlando and a passionate community advocate.

Over the years, Dueling Dragons has raised money to compete in dragon boat festivals all over North America in cities like Chicago, Colorado Springs, Reno, and Toronto. The trips are a great way for the cops and kids to deepen their relationships and share in a one-of-a-kind experience.

“Never have we beaten every adult team out there, except this past summer of 2018,” says Andrea. “It was unbelievable because – how can we do this? We’re cops and kids while all the other teams are all adults. Both of our teams won gold medals in their divisions.”

The Dueling Dragons combo of cops and kids is the only team of its kind in the country, with impressive results on and off the water. Several alumni have gone on to attend college and receive academic and athletic scholarships. One alumnus was recently sworn in as an Orlando Police Department officer and another began graduate school.

“Not one kid who has signed up for the program has dropped out of school or been arrested,” says Andrea. “They belong to something. Their name is being called. They’re getting hugs and high-fives. And it’s like, you deserve to be like this. This is the way we want you to be – to push the envelope and know that you’re not going to fail. Believe in yourself because we believe in you.”

For more information about the program, connect with OrlandoDuelingDragons on Facebook.

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