For most people, the annual races of the Dragon Boat Festival at Marine Stadium are a fun competition to enjoy with friends on a weekend. For the racers, it’s an active hobby and a way to make local friends.

For Long Beach native Rene Roberts-Nijinsky, it’s where she feels most at home.

Despite her cerebral palsy, Roberts-Nijinsky has considered herself an athlete for as long as she can remember.

The 58-year-old self-described feisty team leader began dragon boat racing in 2019, started her own all-abilities inclusive team in January of this year and has her eyes set on competing nationally.

She participated in triathlons prior to competitive dragon boat racing, a Chinese traditional paddle boat race that requires power from a person’s legs through their arms to push the boat forward.

“I always have had that competitive spirit,” Roberts-Nijinsky said. “That desire to be an athlete and to compete was always there. I just had to find the right place for it.”


Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder that affects balance, coordination, muscle strength and can cause tremors, and it’s something Roberts-Nijinsky has dealt with her entire life. She’s had 24 surgeries throughout her life and will tell anyone that the best medicine is movement.

So Roberts-Nijinsky was disappointed, but not surprised when she started feeling a strong pain in her knee late last year. She prides herself on having “a pain tolerance as high as God’s,” so she knew she had to find a solution quickly.

“What starts to happen is that the more pain you have, the smaller your life gets,” Roberts-Nijinsky said. “And I was not willing for my life to get smaller.”

Roberts-Nijinsky was teaching a class at Cerritos College when she stepped into her first dragon boat. An instructor had visited as a guest speaker and encouraged students to get in the boat and try paddling in the pool. Roberts-Nijinsky was the only volunteer.

After less than an hour, Team Synergy members returned to the Mother’s Beach banks on Naples Island to haul the dragon boat back onto shore to be cleaned and have any residual water bailed out on July 10, 2023.
Sea water or sweat drips off a Team Synergy paddler’s hand during a powerful stroke of the paddle, helping to move the team’s dragon boat around Naples Island in Long Beach during a July 10, 2023, practice session.


Motivated by her experience, a month later, she headed to Mother’s Beach to practice the real thing.

“I got in the boat and my husband was there and he said, ‘I looked out in the boat and I saw you … you hadn’t been smiling like that for a long time,” Roberts-Nijinsky recalled while holding back tears.

Her dragon boat squad Team Synergy is all-inclusive and includes racers who are all differently-abled. They’ll be competing in the annual Dragon Boat Festival later this month.

Roberts-Nijinsky uses her entire body strength to paddle for dragon boat racing, as well as teaching sixth grade full-time and delivering motivational speeches in her spare time. One thing she was sure of—she didn’t want to slow down.

Cue Dr. Andrew Wassef, the director of the joint replacement program at Memorial Care at the Long Beach Medical Center. He’s completed over 1,000 robotic-assisted joint replacement surgeries during his time at the medical center.

Dr. Wassef said that the profile of people needing joint replacements has drastically shifted in his time at the medical center. He said about 40% of patients that come in are not simply wanting to walk around again, but to compete and live a full, active life.

Dragon boat racing team practicing
Team Synergy steerer and coach Paul Davenport guides the paddlers through Alamitos Bay in Long Beach on July 10, 2023.

Roberts-Nijinsky knew what to expect already since she had a prior knee joint replacement about 10 years ago. She said at one point several years ago, doctors had suggested a below-the-knee amputation but Roberts-Nijinsky opted for a wheelchair for two years instead.

This time, she said she felt heard by her doctors, a rare occurrence despite having over 20 medical procedures.

“I think Rene has been kind of a pillar of what our expectations are for our patients in the program,” Wassef said. “To really be able to return back to their normal life as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”

Roberts-Nijinsky was able to return home the same day, and is back at Mother’s Beach every weekend preparing for the dragon boat races later this month.

“It changed me to be able to feel like I could do something athletic, that I could be strong again,” Roberts-Nijinsky said. “I found my home in the boat.”

Source: (Richard H. Grant | Signal Tribune)

This Long Beach woman is making waves with her all-abilities dragon boat racing team