Luisa Lazano, of Lynbrook, was at a retirement party six years ago for a New York Community Bank co-worker when the then-captain of the company's dragon boat team, looking to recruit members, approached the person next to her.
"I heard him and thought, 'That sounds fun,' " said Lazano, 46, now the team's captain. "I wanted to do something, and I found this to be something I can do."
Her team, named the Queens Dragons after the New York Community Bank's Queens division but mostly composed of Long Islanders who work at the company's headquarters in Westbury, was one of about 180 racing this weekend in New York's 22nd annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Meadow Lake in Queens.
It was the blowout event that teams across New York and Long Island train for all year, and the largest dragon boat race in the United States, said Dave Archer, a festival spokesman. The festival traces its roots to a 2,300-year-old Chinese tale about a despondent poet who drowned himself in the Ni Lo River.
He said more than 100,000 people are expected to visit the vendor tents and to watch the boats during the two-day competition that continues on Sunday.
Though the mood was fun in the Queens Dragons' tent, the 16 team members -- mostly bank employees and some family and friends of workers, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s -- were serious.
"I jog, I run, I play basketball -- I go hard," said Roberto Pimentel, 28, of Holbrook, about how he gets in shape. Since May, the team practiced for a few hours every Saturday at the World's Fair Marina near Citi Field in Flushing.
Following the sport's traditional rules, each boat holds 20 paddlers, a drummer who keeps time and a person who steers.
Because the dragon boats are propelled by paddles not affixed to the vessel like oars, team members have to exert a great deal of strength, said Jeannie Lee, of Westchester, one of the judges.
"Everyone on the water has to use enormous strength," she said. "Your core, your back, your front, everything."
The Queens Dragons finished fourth in a five-boat field Saturday in the 250-meter race and were knocked out of the finals for that event. They were scheduled to take part in a 500-meter race later in the day. Finals will be held Sunday.