Article written by Kel Watt and published as a tribute to Jon Taylor:
13th October 1952 – 17th December 2008
The problem with trying to recognise the remarkable and extraordinary contribution of Jon Taylor when he was in the room, was that he was a man who prided himself on his ordinariness and his achievements as being too humble to deserve much fanfare. His passing away from illness, and his final farewell in December, has given the Australian and international dragon boating community an opportunity to finally speak freely and without interruption about the tremendous debt we owe Jon, and about the tenacity and vision of a man
which has moulded our sport and community.
Jon Taylor spent most of the last two decades as a central figure in NSW and Australian dragon boating. When he stepped aside as President at the AusDBF April 2008 AGM, he left an organisation that had grown a sport from being obscure and novel, into one that oversaw a successful, vibrant sporting community all paddlers were proud to be part of. His final act as President was to announce the awarding of AusDBF’s first life memberships to three people who had been in the trenches with Jon for many difficult and testing years, as they rebuilt and rejuvenated the sport – AusDBF’s first President Trevor Huggard, Ray Leung from Sydney, and Les Williams from Canberra. A couple of days later as the 2008 Australian dragon boat championships came to a close, I recognised how hard it would be to fill his shoes, but that – thankfully – his work and efforts meant the Federation’s and sport’s future was one of endless positive possibilities. To acknowledge that, the new AusDBF board’s first official action was to be the awarding of life membership to Jon. The crowd cheered and applauded (lasting that little bit too long for Jon’s liking) and then anyone who had known Jon nodded their heads in agreement that it was a well-deserved honour.
The AusDBF Board woke the next morning to an email from Jon highlighting the various rules and processes surrounding the awarding of life membership. It was not something to just announce as we liked, but there was in fact a time and a place and a way to do these things properly. He was already a life member of Sydney Tsunami and DBNSW, but if he was going to pick up the trifecta, it was damn-well going to happen right!
Jon’s humility and probity may have won that battle, but AusDBF’s presentation of a unique award acknowledging his contribution to the sport, when the three life members received their plaques, meant we finally won the war to put him in the spotlight for a few minutes and say ‘thank you’. At the 2009 Australian Championships in Caloundra, AusDBF will bestow one more tribute to Jon, creating a new award to be known as the “Jon Taylor Memorial Award” . This will be a perpetual award and presented annually at the AusDBF National Championships to a deserving recipient who has unselfishly contributed to the development of the Sport in Australia.
Jon Taylor – universally known as JT – made sure that he and AusDBF became victims of their own success. As dragon boating has grown and developed, and our membership numbers swelled to previously unimaginable levels, most of us have simply become accustomed to seeing the sport serviced by new boats, large clubs, and colourful and successful regattas. Everyone is now benefitting from JT’s vision and relentless work, but few can remember the ‘bad ol’ days’ when paddlers were secondary to profit. Those who were around in the early 90s witnessed JT’s efforts to transform dragon boating into competitive sport, and ensure the needs and desires of paddlers became the priority for administrators. At a time when dragon boat racing was essentially a business opportunity for a handful of people, who had all the money and resources, and operating in a closed-shop environment, this was seen by many as biting off way more than you could chew. But JT chewed it. He came to the sport through his involvement with the Barclay’s corporate crew, which competed at Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival. He became the crew’s President and coach, and raised the Lord Mayor’s Trophy above his head, following great back to back wins in 1994 and 1995. After winning the trophy twice, the crew moved to the ‘sports’ division and raced under the Barclays banner for a couple more years. When the sponsorship ceased, the club we now know as Sydney Tsunami was formed. While he went about guiding Tsunami on the water, he was also busy coordinating and organising political battles on behalf of the paddlers with the sport’s previous organisers – at both state and national levels. Eventually, this lead to the formation of DBNSW Inc. with JT as the first President. The Tilbury Hotel in Woolloomooloo played host to a number of ‘secret squirrel’ meetings, where a cunning plan to purchase four Geelong-built dragons boats was hatched. JT was joined by four others who wanted ‘in’ on the covert operations – George Louie from Dragon Sports Association, Grant Brewer from Mavericks, Darren Ma (aka Stevenson) from the Pacific Dragons and Steven Davidson, JT had a vision and goal and he never let go of that vision. He was driven and full of passionate energy.
Jon was central to Dragon Boat Racing in Australia and he put many years of energy and passion into sharing his vision of growth of Dragon Boating in Australia and the world.”
Among his legacies are the large and colourful events we now take for granted on our calendar. In 1998 JT helped resurrect the Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Festival at Sydney’s Cockle Bay in Darling Harbour. It is the biggest dragon boat event in the southern hemisphere and showcases our sport to thousands upon thousands of spectators. The newly formed Oceania Dragon Boat Federation – an organisation that will promote and build the sport throughout our region – was put into play by JT. His work with New Zealand in particular, and our other regional neighbours has ensured development and opportunities for years to come.
His crowning achievement though, is undoubtedly Australia’s hosting of the 2007 IDBF World Dragon Boat Championships. JT was instrumental in having the Worlds awarded to Australia, where the green and gold crews bagged a record haul of medals at Penrith’s Olympic rowing course. By then, he was well into his battle with the cancers that were destroying and overcoming his once broad, muscular body. While his struggle was visible to every paddler and spectator and his health poor, there was not a chance he would miss a moment of Australian dragon boat racing’s finest moments, or diminish JT’s pride and pleasure in the Australian crews’ performances.
In November 2006, Jon was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He undertook all the treatment and fought courageously. By the time of the Worlds he was presenting as having beaten his nemesis and was on the mend. Officials and dragon boaters from across the country and around the world saw him bravely continue to lead our sport, but it was heart wrenching for them to watch on while JT sacrificed his comfort in order to continue chairing the regular meetings during his treatments. But for those who knew JT, this was a hallmark of his courage and determination, and a clear demonstration to all he was determined to carry on, and ensure the sport progressed and every paddler could make the most of the landmark event.
As 2008 came, JT’s health seemed to improve, and he began to resemble his old self physically and emotionally. But he was to again be struck by poor health, and surgery was required for a brain tumour. JT’s determination was again on display as he dusted himself off and continued to throw himself into giving to the sport and the paddlers he loved so much. He seemed to recover well and spent some time at AusDBF’s Strategic Planning weekend – determined to contribute and guide right to the end.
JT and his partner Anne were about to head to Hong Kong to watch his beloved Wallabies in November’s Bledisloe Cup clash, when his health took another turn for the worse. A blocked bile duct and a tumour near his liver meant immediate hospitalisation and treatment, and although doctors tried several procedures even Jon’s famous fight and courage could not stop the dreadful disease.
JT spent much of his last few weeks in his red AusDBF hoodie top – a dragon boater to the end – and saying final farewells to so many paddling friends he had helped and inspired over the years. He told close friends that his wish was for his final journey to the afterlife to be on a golden dragon boat, taking him to the next world. Finally, he passed away peacefully with his loved ones around him at 4.55am on December 17th . The mourning and dark feeling of loss that has gripped so many in the dragon boat community reflects the impact JT had on paddlers around the country and throughout the international dragon boat community. As news of his passing filtered out, the messages of condolences came flooding in.
The constant theme was recognising the great loss we suffered, and the collective debt we owed for his vision, dreams and ambitions for the sport, which drove him until they were realised. His loss is immense, but the celebration of his life will take place every time Australian Championships are contested, and whenever a green and gold crew takes to the water to battle against other IDBF teams. Whenever someone picks up a paddle for the first time this summer, they are in their own way ensuring JT’s legacy of a national sport run for the benefit of paddlers, continues to be realised. English historian and historical philosopher Arnold Toynbee once noted that “it is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.”
The Australian dragon boating community can be grateful that our longest serving President – Jon Taylor – had ambitions and goals, and lived that principle. We will long remember him as the father of our modern sport in this country.
JT – thank you, and good bye.