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Health: ‘A boat filled with miracles’

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

With each drumbeat from coach Beans Kelly, 20 paddles strike the Waccamaw River in unison and the Dragon Boat glides forward. Team members aren’t worried about where their boat is going — that’s steersman John Hart’s job on this day — they only know that they are moving on from cancer.

Dragon Boat At the Beach team members are mostly cancer survivors who have learned that life goes on, sometimes swiftly, after surviving surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“I call it a boat full of miracles,” said Kelly, a golf pro and former women’s golf coach at the University of Georgia. “This boat is the most incredible inanimate object I’ve ever come in contact with.”

Kelly was asked to become coach shortly after she joined the team. “Yeah, but I’ve coached golf,” she told team members. “I’ve only paddled three times.” She took the job and attended training sessions in Nashville and Charlotte. “I’m pretty visual,” she said, “and I’m dyslexic. Sitting backwards and going forwards is the best job for a dyslexic person.”

The Dragon Boat team gathered at The Reserve Harbor Marina on Monday for an “e-practice” in preparation for a race May 17 in Marathon, Fla. “E” stands for endurance, said the group’s president, Tom Lynch. “We don’t win much,” he said, “but we party with the best of them.”

Lynch said Dragon Boat At The Beach started with breast cancer survivors in 2007 and has grown to over 100 team members including men and women who have survived any type cancer and spouses or friends known as reservists. “There’s a lot of silver hair,” Lynch said about team members. He’s 82 himself and his wife, Joan, is a team member and 20-year cancer survivor.

The biggest hurdle for the Dragon Boat team is raising $25,000 a year to cover costs. The Elks Lodge from Murrells Inlet presented the team a check for $1,400 last month. Members all pay dues and help with fundraisers. The group is working to become a tax-exempt organization.

“We don’t whine and moan,” said team member Linda Michenon, a 10-year breast cancer survivor. The paddling is difficult at first for women who have had mastectomies and lost lymph nodes because they are working unused muscles and get numbness in their arms. “For two years I lived on extra strength Aleve,” Michenon said.

The team is a support group for members. “One lady’s cancer returned after eight years, and her husband is not well,” said Barbara Moyer. “We cooked something for every day of the week. A reservist had ankle surgery and team members take her to the store and her hairdresser.”

Moyer is team captain and paddles with a younger Charleston team when it’s shorthanded. Dragon Boat is about teamwork and camaraderie, she said, “until we get into a race.” Team members brought home two gold medals last season. Cheryl Brokaw, a 14-year cancer survivor, said Chinese-style Dragon Boating is the fastest-growing water sport in the country. A benefactor bought the team its $15,000 fiberglass boat, and The Reserve Marina keeps it in the harbor for free.

Twenty paddlers gather in a circle to stretch before they parade down to the 40-foot boat and sit in pairs side by side. Lead strokers go in front with the bigger paddlers — known as the engine — in the wider middle part of the boat. Brokaw said the “tiny hineys” are in back where the seats are narrow. The boat slowly makes its way out of the marina, stopping briefly for a moment of silence and a prayer for a friend whose cancer has returned.

Kelly sits in front, her back to the bow and its dragon head, striking a big drum to set the pace and assuring the paddlers they had passed the point of burn after a few hundred meters. “To have 20 people out on the water, working as a team,” Kelly said, “it’s so cool to stay in synch and push and see the improvement the group has made. From an endurance standpoint and stroke technique it’s pretty magical.”

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