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Health: Dragon boat paddlers continue to beat the odds
By Nikki Best
For Janet McEachern, life’s about four letter words.
Not exactly the colorful language that comes to mind. McEachern preaches that “change” is a four letter word. “A woman at church told me that five months ago and I think of it every day,” she said. “At first all I could think of was the bad four letter words, but I learned you can exchange them for the good ones. Hurt for love. Sick for pray.”
There’s a long list, but boat may be the most influential four letter word for McEachern lately. The 81-year-old, along with her teammates Pat Sumner, who turned 83 yesterday, Barbara Ramsey, 82, and twin sister Joanne Drake, won special recognition at the Carolina Beach Dragon Boat Regatta and Festival competition earlier this month.
The team, which was down two paddlers, placed second in its division. A senior is anyone over 55, Beans Kelly, coach of Dragon Boat at the Beach, said. “A super senior is anyone over 65,” she said. “I’m the youngest on the boat at 58. They were recognized for making the best time in the super senior division. And they’re all cancer survivors.” During semi-finals, the team paddled a 1:35.69, their best time of the race.
“It was unbelievable,” McEachern said of the group’s experience at Carolina Beach. “They were so supportive of us, and the high fives were everywhere. We were easily the oldest and the slowest, even though we’ve won two gold medals. We came away feeling so good.”
“Not to mention these medals,” Drake said. The team was sitting in the bleachers after the competition when the announcer said it was time to recognize the group who had four 80-year-olds paddling. “I don’t know who I was sitting next to, but I stood up and said, ‘That’s us!’”
Sumner and Ramsey are both breast cancer survivors. Breast cancer is the disease that ushered in Dragon Boating as a movement to benefit the physical health and social well being of cancer survivors. Current statistics from the National Cancer Institute say one in eight women who live an 80 year lifespan will contract the disease. The average age is 62. “We don’t really dwell on the cancer,” Sumner said. Rightly so.
Ramsey’s diagnosis came almost 25 years ago. She beat it with a mastectomy, but since then she’s done anything but dwell. Ramsey became a talented paddler with Dragon Boat and a runner. She ran, and won, the BFF Pink Ribbon 5K race in North Myrtle Beach the morning of the Carolina Beach festival and then joined her teammates in North Carolina to paddle. She usually runs the 10K, but she had to adjust this year. “When I got to see the results, I saw I was faster than the 60 year olds,” Ramsey said. “I was really proud.”
“We were really impressed by that,” Kelly said.
The group supports all types of cancer survivors now. It’s a spiritual experience each time the team takes to the river for practice.
“We say a prayer every time,” McEachern said.
She says the prayers are for their friends, family and anyone who is battling cancer. “That is our motivation to get out there and find our serenity on the river.”
Drake and McEachern are skin cancer survivors. Drake is the elder of the two, she had it first. She just has to do everything I do, she said of her twin sister. “She tries to anyway,” Drake said.
“It’s a very supportive group,” Ramsey said. “If anyone has a problem, everybody pitches in.” ‘Everybody’ has become a deep bench as the program enters its tenth year. They have a membership of 108, split evenly between survivors and supporters. “Reservists as we call them,” Drake said.
All the funds for the Dragon Boat team come from donations or fundraisers. The Reserve Harbor Marina donates the space where the team keeps its dragon boat. They have been a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization for almost three years. When founded, the team fell under the umbrella of Tidelands Health.
The 80-plus paddlers wish there was an official senior division in Dragon Boat, but there isn’t yet. The team enjoys competing against “some of those young, healthy-looking guys” as Sumner says, but the category might be a good addition to the system. “Maybe there will be one someday,” Drake said.