Erskine College graduates Millie Hodge Runyon ’02 and Meghan Hunt ’08 plied their paddles as members of the Green Dragons, one of some 50 teams made up of cancer survivors and their supporters in the Charleston Dragon Boat Festival earlier this year.
Runyon is a registered nurse who learned about the Dragon Boat event when her employer, Trident Health System in Charleston, put out a call for paddlers and alternates to join its team this year.
Hunt, a medical laboratory scientist at Trident Medical Center, also volunteers at Medical University of South Carolina, doing research on heart valve development in one lab and mandibular defects (cleft palates) in another lab. She participated in the Dragon Boat Festival last year.
“Trident Medical Center is very active in the community as well as in supporting organizations such as Relay for Life and Trident United Way,” she said.
Trident Health System operates several medical centers, so when the Trident team assembled, “I didn’t know a lot of these people,” Runyon said. “But you get to know your team members quickly because you sit hip-to-hip in the boat!”
Team members have good reason to huddle up, as Hunt explained.
“Unlike kayaking, canoeing or paddle boating, paddling the dragon boat involves reaching the paddle to the hip of the person in front of you, and bringing it back to your hip so that you are basically making a right triangle without the tip of the paddle ever being fully submerged.”
First-timer Runyon observed, “It’s very important that you keep in synch, because you’re actually picking up the boat and lifting it above the water. It sort of skims along.”
Hunt agreed. “Because these boats are so easy to tip, timing is the key in this kind of racing. The paddler never looks at his competition, but rather at the top of the team member’s paddle sitting diagonally from him,” she added. “It seems complicated, but in the midst of a race it is like breathing, natural and rhythmic.”
Two paddlers in the front bench of the boat establish the timing of the strokes, and a drummer, seated on a stool in the front of the boat, beats to their rhythm.
Runyon and Hunt, who were not acquainted before their experience with the Green Dragons, were each delighted to discover that Trident’s team included a fellow Erskine graduate.
The team had a couple of Saturday practices on the Ashley River, beginning about two months before the May 14 race. Boats, paddles, life vests, and other equipment were provided for the teams. Runyon said team members were told about the benefits of paddling for cancer survivors. “It’s hard work, but it’s a comforting way to build those muscles back,” she said.
During the festival, “there are other competitions besides the actual race,” Hunt said. “The tent-decorating contest is fun because each team decides on a team name and then decorates their tent accordingly.”
Among other activities at the festival is a best-dressed drummer contest. “Some of the drummers’ outfits can be rather outrageous,” she noted.
A tribute to the Chinese origins of dragon boat racing is also part of the day. “At the midpoint of the festival, there is a presentation which includes Chinese drummers and dancers before segueing into the real reason everyone is there.”
When the time comes to focus on honoring and remembering those who are fighting cancer, have survived cancer, or have died from cancer, there are “tears, smiles and lots of hugs,” Hunt said.
The race itself was fast and exciting.
“The team is assembled on a dock and loaded from the middle to the end, so as not to tip the boat. To work on timing and to get to the starting line, we paddle out to a set of floating docks,” Hunt said. “By now hearts are starting to thump. A set of cues are called, paddles go in the water and then the air horn is blown and we are off on an adrenaline rush. The race itself lasts less that 50seconds but is so invigorating. We have to ask the steer person who won, because the races are always so close.”
“We had three heats,” Runyon said. “The first one puts you in a ranking. We won our first heat in a minute and four seconds.”
In two other heats, the Trident team’s times were 1:11 and 1:32, and they came in fifth out of nine boats in their division. Their captain later pointed out that the Green Dragons had “a better time than a few teams in the higher divisions.”
Runyon said her husband brought their daughter Mayson to the race. “The spectators could get right up close,” she said.
Hunt and Runyon hope to participate in next year’s Dragon Boat Festival.
“It was a lot of fun,” Runyon said “I’m definitely going to do this again next year.”
Hunt said this year’s experience gave her and her colleagues from the laboratory and pathology departments an opportunity to meet a number of doctors, nurses, management staff and others, who made up about two thirds of the team.
“There are days when I walk through the hospital hallway and see members of the team and we just smile and say, ‘Are you ready for the next race?'”
Dragon Boat Charleston is a community-supported 501(c)(3) nonprofit program. The goals and objectives listed on its website include encouraging “healthy healing and healthy lifestyles through goal-oriented exercise, good nutrition, education and fellowship”; supporting “the beneficial effects of physical activity in survivorship through research”; providing “a positive model for our community demonstrating courage, determination and team cooperation”; and advancing “the sport of dragon boat racing.”