A woman, dressed in cyan and magenta, grabs an imaginary paddle with both hands, leans way forward, and pulls back — demonstrating the movement of a dragon boat paddler.
This woman, Julie Bryant, has worked for the Salem Keizer School District since 1992 and is a mother of three — her youngest is currently a senior at West. Bryant is also the founder of Salem’s only cancer survivor dragonboat team — the Unsinkable Survivor Association. Bryant, along with a team of 20 paddlers, plus a caller in front and a steersman in back, row the 60-foot dragonboat competitively in the World Beat Dragon Boat Club in Salem.
The team’s mission is to “paddle for health, healing, and hope,” according to Bryant, who formed the team in September 2015 after seeing survivor teams at a race in Portland. Two months later, she was diagnosed with cancer herself.
“Cancer treatments are life altering, but life-saving at the same time,” she said.
After receiving three surgeries in three months, the cancer was removed, and Bryant set herself to the task of recovering and networking with other dragon-boaters. She wanted to make sure the Unsinkables could begin practice in April 2015, only two months after Bryant returned to work, so they could compete in the World Beat Festival’s dragon-boat race in June.
They did. And they won the last of their races.
The competitions are only a small part of the Unsinkables’ purpose, however. Bryant says the team allows survivors, and supporters of survivors, to “heal spiritually,” as well as physically, after going through treatment or caring for someone with cancer
“We’re celebrating life and helping people,” Bryant said.
Oftentimes people are hesitant to grab a paddle and join the team, because it is a strenuous activity.
“There’s no engine on a dragon boat; the paddlers are the engine,” Bryant said. Even so, the achievement and camaraderie that comes with a successful practice makes it fun.
“Once a person gets in the boat and they try it out, they’re usually hooked,” she said.
Last year, the Unsinkables didn’t quite have enough Salemite survivors to constitute their own team, so Bryant connected with survivor-paddlers from throughout the Northwest to come and fill gaps. This year, however, the team would like to become “self-sufficient.”
The World Beat Dragon Boat Club accepts paddlers as young as 14, with guardian consent, and there is no experience required — new paddlers are paired with more experienced “bench buddies” who coach newcomers on how to position the body and paddle.