The Dragon Boating Life of the GM of Budapest’s New York Palace Hotel

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Tamás Fazekas (center step, front row, second left) and the victoriuos Hungarian team at the 2022 ICF Dragon Boat World Championships.

As he quietly goes about his high-powered work, making sure everything at Budapest’s luxurious Anantara New York Palace Budapest Hotel runs smoothly, you’d never know that Tamás Fazekas is also a Dragon Boat Racer. And not only that, but a world champion.

General Manager of the Hotel since 2019, Fazekas is Budapest born and bred. Starting his career at Hilton Hotels, he spent several years abroad, mainly in Germany, Switzerland and Dubai. Fazekas is married with three sons, none of whom have followed him into canoeing, he says.

And yet, this September, he was part of the Hungary team that won the 10-man 2,000 m at the 2022 ICF Dragon Boat World Championships in Racice, Czech Republic, in September in the Master 50+ open (men) category. He was also part of the 500 m crew of 20 in the Senior (meaning professional) open category, and the 500 m crew of 10 in the Master (40+) open category.

Out of nowhere, it seems, Dragon Boat Racing has become the world’s fastest-growing water sport. The U.K.’s Prince William and Kate Middleton even took part in a race across Dalvay Lake in Canada in 2011, on their first royal tour as a married couple. The prince won, even though Middleton raced as a member of the Sisterhood Dragon Boat team for several years alongside an impressive array of high-achieving professional women.

As you might expect from the name, Dragon Boat Racing has its origins in China. It began more than 2,000 years ago in the rivers that fed the fields as a fertility ritual in advance of the coming crop planting and harvesting seasons.

Appropriately enough, at a time when many of us are glued to “House of the Dragon,” the HBO “Game of Thrones” prequel, an alternative origin story is based on the legend of warrior poet Qu Yuan. When Qu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo river to protest against corruption, the people nearby hurried out to save him from the dragons that infested these waters by beating their drums and splashing their oars.

This is the reason for the drums used on all Dragon Boats and, less commonly, the ornate Chinese-style boats themselves. Traditionally, Dragon Boats are long and narrow, have a flat bottom and raised prow and stern. They’re around 20 meters long and weigh about one to two tonnes.

Tamás Fazekas, general manager of the Anantara New York Palace Budapest Hotel.

Paddle Off!

Dragon Boating took off in what we might loosely call the West when it appeared in New Zealand around 1980. From there, the sport went global. Today, around 90 countries have Dragon Boat teams.

It has also become popular in corporate training environments. Companies all over the world use the sport as a way to, as the U.K.’s Dragon Boats Events company puts it, provide “the ultimate team building to boost morale while promoting key abilities essential in a work environment. Dragon Boat Racing is an exhilarating and addictive sport that requires communication and teamwork to be successful.”

Fazekas has been Dragon Boating since 2010, when he took part in the World Dragon Boat Racing Championship on the River Tisza in Szeged, in the south of Hungary.

“The coach of the Römi team from Csepel was selecting canoeists to join the team for the competition,” he explains. “I’d canoed before. I joined and fell in love with Dragon Boating. It’s a challenging, competitive sport involving teams. This was perfect for me.”

He also participated in the 2013 World Dragon Boat Racing Championship, again in Szeged. Considering Hungary was competing against nations such as Australia, China, Russia, and the United States, the country did pretty well.

Fazekas became part of a team that usually numbers between 10 and 20 people, a far cry from the solitary pursuit of canoeing he took up aged 11 when he trained on the Danube.

Unity in Rhythm

“The most important thing is unity. We must all paddle at the same time, and the rhythm must be the same; otherwise, it all falls apart,” he says. “It’s a kind of orchestra where everything needs to happen in harmony, with the drummer setting the rhythm and the steersman keeping the boat headed in the right direction.”

Fazekas’ team is drawn from all over Hungary. His teammates have a background in canoeing and are amateur sportspeople who all train regularly. The GM has chiefly competed in Europe with the team, although he also found a Dragon Boat outfit when working in Dubai and participated in competitions with them. “A great experience,” he says.

Sadly, the 2020 championship, meant to be held in India, was canceled. In 2024, it will take place in Hong Kong, closer to the ancient roots of Dragon Boating, and Fazekas is determined to be there.

Fazekas takes to the water as often as he can, whether to train with the team or canoe solo on the Danube.

“Sometimes in the evening,” he says, “away from the city, I listen to what I call ‘the voice of the water.’ This takes me away to a totally different dimension.”

Back in his day job, Fazekas acknowledges that the experience of Dragon Boating and lessons learned from the sport certainly shape his work in the lavish, glittering environment of the Anantara New York Palace Budapest Hotel’s corridors of luxury.

“Dragon Boating is teamwork. You have as many as 20 team members in one not-so-large boat, all having to move together. In the hotel, we must always act as a team, work closely together, and coordinate how we do our jobs. Dragon Boating also teaches persistence and a philosophical approach to life,” he says.

“We take to the river or lake rain or shine, whatever the weather. Despite disappointments, we never give up. These are good lessons for corporate life and a sometimes challenging job such as mine,” he continues.

To find out more about Dragon Boating in Hungary, head for the Hungarian Canoe Federation website: www.kajakkenusport.hu

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 21, 2022.

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