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The winning Dragon Boat Charleston Breast Cancer Survivor Team surrounds DBC director Sterling Hannah (front row, center).

october 21, 2010

Dragon Boat Charleston celebrates beating back cancer, one stroke at a time

WRITTEN BY Harriet McLeod

“Physically, racing has pushed me to my limits, to places I never thought I’d go,” says Boo Collins, who is seated under the gazebo at Bristol Marina with best friend and fellow Dragon Boat paddler Patty Byrne. Collins has been cancer-free for 10 years, Byrne for almost five. And this month, as they raise money and awareness for breast cancer, the fierce members of Dragon Boat Charleston’s Breast Cancer Survivor Team, who range in age from their mid-30s to their mid-70s, can wear gold over their usual pink shirts and pearls. Just a few months ago, the team’s 20 paddlers brought home three gold medals—in the 250-, 500- and the 1,000-meter races—from the U.S. National Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Dragon Boat Charleston made such an impression up at nationals,” says Byrne. “We even surprised ourselves.” The group was proud to have beaten veteran team Pink Steel of Pittsburgh, who had a Sports Illustrated writer and photographer following them during the July event. “After the second day, they didn’t know what to do, because we kept smokin’ ’em,” she laughs.

Dragon Boat Charleston’s teams—which now comprise some 100 members and include an all-cancer survivor team and a community team called Surge—compete at about five festivals per year in the U.S. and Canada, even hosting Charleston’s annual festival in May. And the Grand Master team (paddlers over age 50) has won a berth at the next world championship races, to be held in Hong Kong in 2012.

The Breast Cancer Survivor Team’s prep for the national championships included three months out on the not-necessarily-placid Ashley River with Canadian trainer Pat Barker. “We were out at 5:30 in the morning on the river; we were out at 5:30 at night paddling; and then we were cross-training at MUSC on machines. It was exhausting,” Collins explains.

But the survivors of Dragon Boat Charleston coach, embrace, and mentor each other. “Racing makes me want to exercise outside of paddling, to be stronger,” explains Collins. “Nobody whines. Everybody knows why we’re here.” So these teammates keep pushing. They do yoga and belly dancing together. They’ve started a bowling league. And, of course, they paddle.

“We realize how lucky we are,” adds Byrne. “It’s joyous,” Collins says. “You feel life again.” That sense of renewal is recognized during a survivors’ ceremony at every race. For these athletes, paddling is a way to celebrate beating back cancer, one stroke at a time.

Anybody is welcome to paddle with Dragon Boat Charleston on Saturday mornings at 9:30 a.m. at Bristol Marina. For more information on the team, click here.

The Cancer Survivor Team’s video has been named one of 25 finalists in Mutual of Omaha’s “aha moments” advertising campaign. To cast your vote for their video in the TV commercial contest, click here.

To watch the trailer of a documentary about Dragon Boat Charleston, click here.

For more of
Charleston magazine’s community-related stories, click here.



Thu, 10/21/2010