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Community : Top Stories Last Updated: May 8, 2013 - 8:40:17 AM


Island family gains strength through ancient Dragon Boat tradition
By Elizabeth Bush
May 1, 2013 - 8:49:10 AM

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Daniel Island dragon boat peddlers Kelly, Josh, and Jeff Hood pose before heading out for a ride on the Ashley River from Brittlebank Park.
All aboard! Kelly Hood (second from the left, front) sits behind her husband, Jeff.

The sun sits low in the early evening sky just above the tree line, signaling the end of the day is near. As the “rush hour” cars and trucks zip hurriedly across a nearby bridge over the Ashley River in Charleston, a group of people quietly make their way through Brittlebank Park towards three waiting boats at the river’s edge. Their planned adventure, part of a 2500 year old tradition, is in stark contrast to the busy world around them. And that is exactly why they are here.    
“All hands on deck,” a man yells from the back of the boat, as 20 people settle into rows of seats on the colorfully appointed vessel. “In three we push off!”
Welcome to a day in the life of Dragon Boat Charleston (DBC), an organization that was established ten years ago to promote physical and mental wellness among cancer survivors and their community. Dragon boat racing can be traced back some 20 centuries to the Pearl River Delta region of China, where the practice originated as a ceremonial way to venerate a dragon deity, to celebrate bountiful rice harvests, and to avert misfortune and calamity. Today, it has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world, but those who experience it have different reasons for taking part.    
When Daniel Island resident Kelly Hood finished treatments for colon cancer in 2008, she was ready for a fresh new start on life. A friend told her about the DBC mission.  
“I looked it up on the website and started coming out to paddle and just loved it from the start!” said Kelly, who is now completely cancer-free.
In fact, Kelly was so taken with the sport that she invited her husband, Jeff, to join in the following year. Their son, Josh, age 14, started paddling with them in 2012.
“You get a lot of serenity out there, and we get to take advantage of that,” said Jeff. “And the social aspect is at least as good as everything else!”
“I always thought it would be fun,” added Josh, who is seeking to join an international youth paddling team. “I learn something new about the stroke every time I practice…and it keeps me out of trouble!”
“It’s just a great group of people that really have become friends,” said Kelly. “These are people that I might not have encountered otherwise. They are people from all walks of life, all professions, all backgrounds, and different experiences. It’s just really increased our network of friends!”
Exercise is another added benefit.
“It definitely promotes well-being,” said Kelly. “It’s great…It’s as much of a workout as you want it to be. It can be a leisurely day on the water or it can be a serious workout!”
Sometimes called “a floating support group,” Dragon Boat Charleston has become increasingly popular over the years, attracting all ages and skill levels. According to Meagan Labriola, executive director of DBC, the organization started with just 20 people in 2003 and now has ovaer 170 team members.
“We have brand new cancer survivors coming into the group every day,” said Meagan. “…Being on the water is so restorative and feels so great. (Our founders) thought how amazing to be able to get this kind of exercise, see beautiful sunsets and just have that whole experience.”
And newbies need not fear. Experienced paddlers say everyone can do it.
“The thing about paddling is there is a very fast learning curve,” added Jeff. “So within a year you can be highly competitive. It doesn’t take years and years to get there.”
Cancer survivors can join DBC for free, but other members of the community can take part as well for a $100 annual fee. The group conducts weekly practices and also competes in five to six races per year. This year, their travels will take them to Victoria in British Columbia. Other trips have included competitions in Oregon, Washington D.C., and Toronto.
“It’s a remarkable group of people,” said Meagan. “They will do anything for each other. It sounds cliché to say this, but they are such a family. When someone needs something they will go to the ends of the earth to get it. They are extremely supportive of each other, and loyal and very passionate not just about the sport but about being a Dragon Boat Charleston member.”
On Saturday, May 4, paddlers from all across the region and beyond will come together in celebration of cancer survivors and dragon boat racing for DBC’s largest annual fundraiser – the Charleston Dragon Boat Festival at Brittlebank Park. The event has been described as a “fun day for corporate and community teams to picnic and paddle together on the Ashley River in 41-foot dragon boats.” About 2,000 participants are expected. Although team registrations are closed, the community is welcome to come take part in a variety of festival activities.
“It’s really an amazing spectacle,” added Meagan. “People dress up in crazy outfits and decorate their tents…It’s free and it’s open to come out and watch…We will have a survivor ceremony where we stop the madness and get serious for a few minutes. We’re there to celebrate life and honor those who have battled cancer. It’s really a special part of the day!”
The Hood family will be volunteering at the upcoming festival and also plan to make the trip to compete in British Columbia in August.  Josh, who won his first dragon boat racing medal recently, is hoping to tackle a major paddling event in Hungary later this year. In the meantime, the family is relishing the time they have together on local waterways, enjoying life one stroke at a time.
“It’s a great stress reliever,” added Kelly. “Being out here on the water, you can clear your mind of everything that’s happened in your day. It’s really a great opportunity.”
As the Hoods slipped out with their DBC teammates onto the Ashley last week, 20 paddles sliced into the water in near perfect synchronicity. Tiny ripples rolled away from back of the boat as they surged forward, the strength of their combined efforts providing all the power they needed to leave the world behind.
For more information on Dragon Boat Charleston, visit the organization’s website at www.dragonboatcharleston.org.
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