Enter the dragons

Watch amazing boats race in Long Beach

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Dragon boats

With drums beating and paddles flying, dragon boats race across Long Beach Marine Stadium.

Todd Bigelow

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It's a spectacle you won't forget: 20-person crews propelling ornate, dragon-headed boats on a 500-meter course at the Long Beach Marine Stadium. Aficionados claim dragon boat racing is the world's second most popular sport, behind soccer.

After you experience this month's Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival, you'll probably become a fan too. The sport began centuries ago in China, and it's now gaining momentum in North America. The Long Beach meet is one of the largest on the West Coast, attracting more than 100 teams and thousands of spectators.

Spearheading the competition is Monterey Park orthodontist Howard Chen. Once a rower himself, he raises money for Southern California's largest and most competitive teams, the Killer Guppies and the Los Angeles Racing Dragons ― aka LARD.

"Some of these athletes were originally my patients when they were high school students," Chen says. "They've grown into the coaches and team captains. We often send two or three teams from L.A. to compete in international competitions in China." Dragon boat racers of the world, beware: Southern California is gaining on you.

INFO: Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival (Jul 30-31; free; Long Beach Marine Stadium; www.lbdragonboat.com).

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