Saturday, April 16, 2016

Back on the dragon boat: The return of the Mighty Woman!

The Mighty Women on the Willamette River.
I'm in the back of the boat, port (left) side  and waving my paddle
with my bench partner, Joan Sanford, who encouraged me with every stroke.

This morning, I became a Mighty Woman again.

Seven months after crushing both my wrists in an ATV accident, I climbed back into a dragon boat with my team mates and paddled the Willamette River on a sunny Saturday morning. It felt glorious. Empowering. The river sparkled. I am quite sure I was glowing. And it felt as if I'd come full circle.

The last time I paddled a dragon boat was a Thursday night, Sept. 3. That night our paddling practice seemed magical. It happened to be the night of the Oregon Symphony's annual Waterfront Concert at Tom McCall Waterfront Park overlooking the Willamette River. So as Coach Jeanie Zinn led us through grueling race starts to prepare for races just a week away, we were serenaded by the symphony playing Mozart and Bach and had an audience of almost 20,000 spectators.

After our practice, I had lingered at the park so I could enjoy a free classical concert under the stars. Gripping my paddle, I ordered a slice of pizza from a vendor and struck up a conversation with a couple visiting from Australia. They asked many questions about dragon boating. I told them the sport had changed my life--and that I was a Mighty Woman. I saw the way they looked at me--as if I was a strong, adventurous woman. It was a night I'll always remember.

Less than 48 hours later, I was flying over an ATV's handlebars, somersaulting through the air and slamming to the ground. I recall gingerly sitting up and noticing the ATV had crashed just a foot from my body. And then I felt pain. That's also a day I'll never forget.

In the days, weeks and months that followed my accident, I did not feel strong, adventurous, or mighty. With both arms in casts and unable to do much of anything for myself, I felt people looking at me, sizing up my broken body, and feeling pity for me. But with grit and the help of many family members, friends, and medical professionals, I healed.

A few days ago, I went to my last physical therapy appointment. Carol, my therapist, had cheered me on for months. I had brought my paddle to my last session so that she could see the movement of my body when I held my paddle. She hugged me.

"I release you from therapy," she said. "But keep doing your exercises on your own. And please be careful in the dragon boat. Don't push yourself. If it hurts, stop."

When I told my newsroom colleagues I was going to try dragon boating again, many looked concerned. "Be careful," several people told me. "Don't push yourself."

I texted my coach and told her I planned to join the team on the boat Saturday morning, but I was concerned that I may not have the strength to hold onto my paddle to keep up with the team. She was excited I was coming back to the boat.

"Just do your best. Paddle ten strokes and rest ten strokes," she advised me.

I met my friend, Patty for dinner and told her the good news that I'd had my last therapy appointment. That first week after my accident when I needed so much help, Patty had been my caregiver. During the four months I couldn't drive, she drove me to countless doctor appointments and cheered me on.

When I told her I was going to try paddling the next morning, she again cheered me on: "Go, Mighty Woman!"

I smiled. And I hoped I'd have the range of motion and strength to paddle again. I really missed being a Mighty Woman.

Last night I was so excited that I placed my paddle and life jacket by my front door. This morning I awoke early. Too excited to stay in bed any longer, I ate breakfast and dressed quickly in my paddling clothes.

Before I left for practice, I texted the Mountain Man: "Excited but nervous about getting on dragon boat."

Knowing how competitive I am, he texted back: "You can do this. Just go as far as you think you should. Don't let competition or peer pressure make you go too far."

When I arrived at the waterfront, I was greeted with cheers, hugs, and smiles from my team mates. We did our warm-up exercises, then walked down to the dock, and climbed into the boat.

Coach Jeanie placed me on bench ten, the rear bench, with Joan, who also is recovering from an injury and surgery. Both Jeanie and Joan encouraged me to pay attention to what my body was telling me.

Would it hurt? Would I injure myself? Would I fail miserably and have to give up dragon boat paddling and the camaraderie of the Mighty Women? I hoped not. That thought has hounded me all these months as I've been doing physical therapy and recovering.

My first stroke was tentative--and wimpy. At first, I did paddle ten strokes, rest ten, and then paddle ten more. But toward the end of practice, as we raced from under the Marquam Bridge and back to the dock, I paddled with each stroke with every ounce of strength I had left. I did it!

The sun was shining as we pulled up to the dock. I was sitting on starboard side, so grabbed the dock while Shane, our tiller, secured our boat. The dock was busy with activity. Many paddlers from other teams were finding their way to their dragon boats.

A man holding the hand of a very tiny preschool girl walked slowly past us. I looked at them, smiled, and said: "You should come paddle with us sometime. We're the Mighty Women!"

The little girl smiled shyly at me. I grinned back.

The morning was golden. I am a Mighty Woman again. And I'm still smiling.