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Dragon Boat coach Patrick Couling (left rear) steers during a practice session at False Creek in Vancouver.Rafal Gerszak

Patrick Couling, Coach, Conquering Waves Dragon Boat team

As dozens of teams get ready to churn the waters of False Creek this weekend at the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival, there's one representing Canada's most stigmatized population – the mentally ill.

Conquering Waves, now eight years running, is made up of 20 people living with various diagnoses, their friends and family, and workers from community agencies such as Coast Mental Health and Open Door Group.

Beating the drum at the back of the boat is volunteer coach Patrick Couling, 61, a mild-mannered export consultant with a passion for paddling. A former star athlete – he attended Washington State University on a track-and-field scholarship – he has been involved with dragon boating for 25 years, and has helped many competitive and charity teams race to the finish.

First steps

It all started in 1985, when I helped create the False Creek Racing Canoe Club out of the community centre on Granville Island. After I stopped paddling, I got into coaching competitive teams, and gradually moved into what they call special population teams. I helped get a team started for multiple sclerosis patients, and I've worked with some breast cancer teams as well. Eight years ago, I was asked to coach Conquering Waves by some community agency staff who were looking for an outlet for people with mental illness to socialize and become physically active.

The pitch

We've got people with schizophrenia, depression and OCD, but with most of my team, you really wouldn't know who has a mental illness and who doesn't. These are just normal people, and yet there is no group more marginalized by society. There's a reluctance to recognize how many people suffer from mental illness. Part of our goal is to get them out on the water so people can see the team, but mostly it's an avenue for a bunch of really nice people to exercise, socialize and go out for some good food.

What keeps you going?

The sense of accomplishment and the smiles at the end of every race. Dragon boating really pushes the concept of teamwork to the edge – if one person is out of sync, the entire boat suffers. With competitive teams, you work and work and you barely make any progress. With these guys, you're seeing major breakthroughs every time you practice. It's incredibly rewarding.

My hero

Hugh Fisher, the Olympic gold medallist in sprint kayak and my first coach at the False Creek Racing Canoe Club in 1985. He created the sport of dragon boat in Canada.

Next steps

When I'm not at work, I'm volunteering. It's part of who I am. I'm also coaching a kidney dialysis team called O2P – Oh to pee, get it? – which runs almost year-round. They're trying to raise awareness of organ donation, and they're some of the sickest people I've coached, but if they can do it, anyone can.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Send suggestions for the Action Figure to

Special to The Globe and Mail