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Interview with the Expert: Tom Weitz

In this interview, we have the privilege of talking dragon boat racing with Tom Weitz who has greater than 25 years of experience competing in this quickly growing sport. During that time period, he has competed in 6 world championship events, winning 4 Golds, 3 Silver & 4 Bronze medals in the process. Today he shares with us how he got involved with the sport, the steps dragon boat racing is taking in order to become an Olympic sport as well as his training and nutrition strategies. Furthermore, Tom shares his advice on how to age without losing the physical prowess of our youth – something we can all appreciate!

About Tom Weitz

Figure 1. Tom Weitz displaying one of his world championship medals. Image posted with permission

In this installment of Interview with the Expert, we have the privilege of talking with Tom Weitz, who has competed as a member of USA’s National Dragon Boat racing team from 1997-2011. At his last world championships, the 2011 Dragon Boat World Championships held in Tampa, Florida, he came home with a haul of medals that would make most envious! Since then he's stayed active in the sport, competing on the national circuit with the Solid Steel Dragons, of which he has been a team member of since 1992. Recently, he was gracious enough to sit down and share some of his experiences with us…

Mr. Weitz, on behalf of the readers here at CasePerformance, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us. It’s a true honor to have you with us today.

First off, tell us a little about your background… Did you participate in any sports while growing up?

I was a H.S. wrestler and a 4-year varsity letter winner. I did alright as a senior with only a hand full of losses, but I was a late bloomer and didn't see much athletic improvement until later in life. I went into the Army and became an Airborne Ranger, which was demanding enough, but I didn't find the physical aspects overly challenging compared to many other soldiers. Most of it was easy for me.

I competed in an all-services fitness competition once in Washington, D.C. and got second place. That was fun. I got paid to be there and got a chance to see the nation’s capital.

When/How did you get involved in Dragon Boat Racing?

When I left active duty and came back to Dubuque, Iowa, a good friend of mine, Earl Brimeyer, got me interested in canoe racing. That was 30 years ago. Well, a friend of his was given two dragon boats from Taiwan and she didn’t quite know what to do with them. They explained dragon boat racing and she reached out to Earl because he knew a lot of canoe racers and thought it’d be fun to get some events organized in the Midwest.

We had heard of an event in Chicago (1988) off the Navy Pier and decided to put together a team to see how we’d do… We didn't have a dragon boat at the time so we rigged up 4 canoes together, added extra seats so that we could get 16 people to paddle together. Even as rookies we realized that TIMING is what makes a dragon boat go fast. It was quite the contraption and got a lot of funny looks while paddling in the Peosta Channel in Dubuque, IA, USA.

We actually did pretty well against teams that had been doing it for many years. There were teams from Canada and Australia that had done it before and yet we could compete with them. We were hooked!

We decided to conduct our own event in Dubuque and 3 months later we had 30 teams formed that competed at the Water Ski Club in Dubuque. That was 1988 and we've been doing it ever since.

Since you've been involved with the sport, has dragon boat racing grown in popularity over the years?

Dragon Boat is one of the fastest growing water sports in the world. By some counts, it is second only to soccer in popularity. All the European and Asian countries have events which have as many as 200 teams competing.

Here in the USA, there have been several races added to the Midwest “circuit” and during the summer months there is a race on just about every weekend. It’s grown equally in the East and West where festivals draw over 100 teams.

Some events in the Midwest have seen a drop-off while others are surging in attendance. Dubuque actually saw a drop and at one point only 20 teams competed in the event. This last year, however, we had 40 teams.

As aforementioned, in August 2011, you competed at the World Championships. How did Team USA do?

Figure 2. Team USA. Image posted with permission

I competed with the 50+ aged paddlers called the Senior B or Grand Masters. Team USA did rather well; In fact we did the best the US has ever done in that category. We finished with two silver medals, two bronze and we won a World Championship in the 10-man boat, 500 meters. We should have gotten another silver, but our steersman had some trouble in one final and we ended up third. There are all kinds of ways things can go wrong, which makes the sport even more fun.

Team USA also won what is known as The Nation’s Cup. This is based on the combined total of points gathered in the premiere races throughout the event. We won it back in 2007 in Sydney and lost it in 2009 in Prague. It was very rewarding to win it again and do it on our soil er, I mean, water.

The win in the 10-man, 500 meter, was exciting because it was an inaugural event for the World Championships for 10-man entries (standard boat seats 20). The introduction of the 10 man, 500 meters event is an important step for the sport. This will make it more economical as we're focused on moving the sport into the direction necessary in order to get the sport into the Olympics. Some feel that the standard boat, having 20 paddlers, is too costly as it means 22 medals per team which is quite expensive. Furthermore, housing that number of athletes at the Olympic Village would be challenging.

Overall, what have been your proudest accomplishments in the sport?

Winning that 500 meter race was right up there. I was also on Team USA when we won a gold medal in Hong Kong in the final premiere event. That was in 1997 when I first made the team. They do a lot of gambling in Hong Kong and I wouldn’t think anyone was betting on the USA to win that.

Back then the coach offered open try-outs and I drove over to Philadelphia to try-out. There were about 60 guys there. It’s very similar to what they did this year for team selection. They had try-outs all over the US this year and because the World’s were in Tampa, there were a bunch of paddlers trying out.

I was also on the team in 2001 and we did well that year. It was in Philadelphia and we won 2 Golds, a Silver and a Bronze. In all, I've been in six World Championships and have won 4 Golds, 3 Silvers, 4 Bronzes.

I’d also like to add that our local team, called Solid Steel has done very well. We've qualified as a team to compete in two World Championships in those years when they allowed teams to compete for spots as opposed to individual selections. Although we didn’t medal, we raced against the best in the world and were competitive. Our best finish was a 6th place, which is impressive for a local team.

In the particular boat style we use in the Midwest (Taiwanese), Solid Steel is probably the most successful team in the country. We've been beaten only twice in those boats in 21 years!

Editor's Note: CLICK HERE to see a video of the Solid Steel team in action.

Do you compete in any sports besides Dragon Boat Racing?

As I mentioned before, I've been marathon canoe racing since 1982. I've placed in the top ten many times including several top 5 finishes in National Championships. In 2001 I won Aluminum Nationals here in Dubuque with Keith Boever, also of Dubuque, Iowa (USA). These are called canoe marathons and usually last about 2 hours.

I've had some success competing in local adventure races (another awesome team sport) and canoe/bike/run triathlons. For triathlons, I usually try to find the fastest biker and runner I can and do them as a relay, but I have won some solo.

Another sport I really enjoy is cross-country skiing. I do pretty well locally, but I primarily enjoy the aesthetic nature of it. It’s quite enjoyable cruising along on the flat at about 15 mph, under your own power. There’s a very fun event called The American Birkebeiner. It’s the Boston Marathon of cross-country skiing and draws over 8,000 skiers. It’s a 30 mile race held every February in northern Wisconsin (USA). I've done it 25 times.

I have run 5 marathons, including Boston and have a 3:06 as my PR. I can never focus strictly on running but use it to augment my endurance. It’s a good cross-trainer.

Speaking in terms of generalities, what does your in-season and off-season training routines look like? Do you incorporate much resistance training?

The off-season consists of the cross-country skiing. It’s great for the lower as well as upper body including back, shoulders and core. It helps lay a general aerobic foundation for all major muscle groups. Then I’ll hit the water as soon as possible after spring thaw. Cross-country skiing and canoeing complement each other quite well.

I believe in having a good base, and for dragon boat it’s: sprint, sprint, sprint. I also will do run sprinting. 50% of paddle power will come from solid leg drive. Many people think it takes good arm strength. Nope! It’s whole body, legs, torso, back. The arms are least important to the stroke.

I’m a big believer in weight-training. All else being equal, the stronger muscle will outperform the weaker, right?

I somewhat adhere to the old Nautilus guidelines primarily because of the energy demands of the sports themselves. I like the HIT method. It requires a great deal of energy to paddle or ski a few hours, so I keep the weight-training to as little as needed to produce a positive result. There are a few transition months in spring and fall when I’ll do some hypertrophy emphasis, but once I’m focused on the seasonal sport I back it off to more pure strength emphasis for maintenance and work the aerobic engine, sport specifically.

Currently I do most of my workouts at home, so I have to be cautious without a training partner. I have about 900 lbs of weights at home and a few apparatus and bars. Lots of back, shoulders, chest and leg work. I’ve recently added a full line of commercial quality Nautilus equipment.

What role does nutrition play in your performance?

I recently graduated from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) to become a health coach. I’m a firm believer that good nutrition is the foundation to performance and health in general; especially for athletes. Feed the machine, as they say and you wouldn't put junk fuel in a Mazeratti, would you? The best athletes have bodies that are finely tuned and optimal performance requires optimal nutrition.

I’m a big fan of supplements for a number of reasons. It’s difficult to get optimal nutrient levels from the standard food supply. I believe in local organic food, when possible, is the best choice and using supplements to offer a level of insurance and to fill the gaps, so to speak.

Nutrition is a fascinating field and I believe we are just beginning to understand all there is to know. Look at the number of findings in the last 10 – 20 years regarding certain nutrients and substances. It’s mind-boggling! We’re really starting to see what real nutrition is all about from a scientific stand point.

In fact, it’s rather scary and quite confusing to many and I like the approach of IIN. There is no emphasis on one particular diet or set of rules one most follow and there is some bio-individuality based on history and current circumstances of that person. Sure, there are some basic guidelines, but a great deal of flexibility.

Because of the increased knowledge we’re seeing how food can be our medicine and there is a huge battle brewing over the control of food and supplements. This is driven by Big Ag and Pharma. People are seeing that naturally derived substances can actually out-perform drugs and that local supply chains are healthier than the conglomerate processed junk that’s purposely made addictive.

And there are some foods and supplements that will benefit everyone, for example organics and omega-3 oils, to name a couple. And I believe cheap food will actually cost more in the long run with deterioration of health and the rising costs of health care.

What have you found works best for you in regards to pre-, post- and intra- workout nutrition?

For the short duration sessions I’m not too concerned with pre workout. For my extended workouts I plan on allowing a 3 hour window from last meal, which is usually a few hundred mixed fuel calories. Mostly carbs and protein. The idea being to allow all hormone levels to stabilize, especially insulin. Insulin inhibits lipid mobilization, so I want to minimize that impact during a 3 + hour session. Higher insulin means faster muscle glycogen depletion – something I want to avoid.

During those longer sessions, I’ll consume a complex carb mix that includes some protein. No simple sugars which I believe can hurt performance. A good carb like maltodextrin can be as high as 15 – 18 % solution and yield almost 300 calories per hour. Far higher than a simple sugar mix that offers only about 100. Trying to get more only causes stomach distress, so I avoid any simple carb solutions.

The protein mixed in is about 1:7, protein:carb. This helps prevent catabolization of muscles as protein will start being used. After 90 – 120 minutes of activity, about 5 – 15% of caloric utilization comes from protein and if you’re not consuming it, where does it come from? Muscles.

I’m a firm believer in consuming post session/event meal. I consume a maltodextrin/whey protein based supplement that contains 30g CHO, 10 g Pro. It has the right balance of carbs to protein for setting up immediate recovery processes. Repletion of glycogen, hydration and adding some micronutrients is critical for long term performance. I’ll usually consume this within 30 minutes of the event and then eat a good meal in another hour or so.

Any other thoughts/advice you're willing to share with us at CasePerformance?

Well, I’m 53 years old. I can still do some things I could do when I was 25. Maybe not quite as fast or as well, but I’m pretty close. I think it’s more because of the desk job, than due to aging that I’m slowing. Sitting all day is, with exception of our processed food supply, probably the number one cause of disease in America (In my honest opinion). I notice that I get tighter and lose energy the more I sit. The human body was meant to move and is actually more efficient when it does so, regularly. Move as often as possible.

Secondly, take charge of your own health!

For those interested in finding out more about dragon boat racing in general or your racing team, Solid Steel, where can they find you at?

They can reach out to me personally (icancanoe@hotmail.com). In fact we’re always looking for like minded athletes. Those that know and appreciate hard work and live that way. The foundation for Solid Steel has been weight-trainers who have become dragon-boaters. Its kind-of a natural extension of who they are in the gym. I tell people that I’ve been training for dragon boating all my life, even before I even knew what one was.

It’s one of the best team sports there is and some of the most intense couple minutes in all of sports!

On behalf of the readers here at CasePerformance, I once again want to thank you for joining us here today and sharing your knowledge. Keep up the great work!

Click Here to find out "Why we do, what we do."

Written on October 03, 2012 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: August 28, 2013

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.