Photo above: Maureen Conroy is a breast cancer survivor and will be competing in DragonBoat Beaufort races on Saturday, Sept. 3. Here, she is surrounded by her family, from bottom left, grandchildren, Ellie, Addy, Margaret, James, Devon and Eimile, husband Dennis, Maureen, and children Meghan, AJ, Moira and Rick.
By Kat Walsh
In January of 2014, Maureen Conroy was sifting through her mail when South Carolina Living, a free monthly magazine from Palmetto Electric Cooperative that usually got a passing glance, caught her attention.
“On the cover was this goofy looking boat with people around it saying ‘paddles up!’ And I had no idea what I was looking at,” said Conroy, who was born and raised Syracuse, N.Y., and moved to the Bluffton area with her husband, Dennis, in 2003.
As she read the article about the goofy boat – a dragonboat – and the team, DragonBoat Beaufort, Conroy knew exactly what she was looking at: herself.
“I realized that DragonBoat Beaufort is a cancer survivor support team and as a cancer survivor myself, I thought, ‘I have to check this out.’ ”
The power of a paddle
“The belief once was that if a woman had breast cancer, you do no upper body stuff, no, no, no,” said Conroy.
She cited a Canadian study from the 1990s in which researchers found the exact opposite to be true: that gaining upper body strength helps patients.
But Conroy, 68, doesn’t need a study to confirm what she discovered for herself as a paddler.
“When we get in the boat, our head is in the boat,” she said. “We don’t think about cancer, we just think about paddling.”
Greg Rawls, past president and marketing director of DragonBoat Beaufort, said Conroy is more than a dedicated paddler and an essential member of the organization, she is someone to be admired.
“Paddling to win is hard, especially when you consider what our cancer survivors have been through,” he said. “I love when they race – raw determination, guts and perseverance. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose, but regardless, I am so proud that they have the guts to leave cancer on the dock and paddle.”
Those are the gifts of dragonboat paddling (in dragonboating, one paddles, never rows): physical strength, psychological healing and camaraderie.
The camaraderie and community Conroy discovered while paddling has led to opportunities on and off the water.
Two years ago, the International Breast Cancer Survivor DragonBoat races were held in Sarasota, Fla.
“With only four survivors, we didn’t have enough paddlers to make a whole team,” said Conroy. “But we were lucky. DBB sent the four of us to Sarasota anyway.”
There, Conroy and her teammates joined another group short on paddlers – the Perth, Australia, survivor team. Together, Beaufort and Perth, Australia, were one of 105 dragonboat teams from around the world.
It’s an example of how dragonboat teams pull together to support each other.
Conroy attends practice three times a week with her Beaufort team, but said weather prevents them from paddling year round.
“We stop when the water gets a certain temperature,” she said. “After all, you don’t want 22 people falling into the cold water.”
Add it all up – the practices, the races, the traveling back and forth – and that’s a lot of time for any group of adults to spend together.
Race Day 2016
As a member of DBB’s competitive team, Conroy and her fellow paddlers travel around the Southeast to compete and will be competing Saturday, Sept. 3, in the annual DragonBoat Beaufort races.
Armed with their paddles, lifejackets, and happy camaraderie, the team has already traveled to races in Charleston, Lake Lure, N.C., and Oriental, N.C., this year, with future competitions in Atlanta, Charleston and Jacksonville.
“When DragonBoat Beaufort races, you cannot miss us. We wear bright, bright, bright pink shirts,” she said.
On Race Day this year, however, Conroy will be wearing many shirts, literally.
She will don the shirt the Swamp Dragons, the team she is racing for, and then switch to her DBB volunteer shirt.
And there’s one more significant event for Maureen Conroy on Race Day – it marks the day she will be in remission from breast cancer for five years. Paddles up indeed.