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Can paddling a boat change a life? For the crew of the Lethally Blind dragon boat team, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

In June, NWABA sponsored two crews from the Lethally Blind dragon boat team in the Portland Rose Festival dragon boat races. This is the seventh year that the team has raced, making a huge difference in the lives of paddlers who are blind or visually impaired.

Each of the vibrant, long boats, which have roots in ancient China, holds 20 paddlers. In addition, a caller, a steersperson and a flag catcher, all of whom are sighted, are on board. About 75% of the Lethally Blind team members are blind or visually impaired.

Ten weeks to learn synchronized paddling plus power, speed and endurance

Each year, the team has approximately 10 weeks to train paddlers for the Rose Festival races, team captain Char Cook reports. “The key to successful paddling is timing,” she says. “It is synchronized paddling with every single paddle going into the water exactly at the same time. For sighted team paddlers they teach to watch the paddle in front of them. We teach people to feel the boat’s timing.”
Under coach Sue Fischer, Lethally Blind has won awards four out of the past seven years. Both crews medaled in their divisions at the 2014 Rose Festival races, which attracted 70 teams. “Because Sue believes that blind people can achieve greatness on the water, and because Northwest Association for Blind Athletes supports this belief, we believed, too, and we did it!” Char says. “And we’re not finished yet!” In 2014, 50 people signed up to paddle for Lethally Blind.

Lethally Blind is giving many team members the opportunity to experience sports for the first time. “Many people say this is the first time in my life that I felt I could be an athlete or be part of a team environment which I desperately wanted to do,” Char says.

Camaraderie and competition – a “phenomenal” feeling

No one on the team knows more about the life-changing impact of dragon boat racing than she does. “The sport of dragon boat paddling has impacted my life in a way I didn’t expect,” says Char, who has Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes total blindness. “I remember walking down the dock to a practice in 2002 and thinking ‘I may not have vision for much longer.’”
“For the past 12 years the paddling has been the one thing I depended on to keep me focused on life and hope rather than total blindness. I never in my life expected to be an athlete. But it happened. Now my joy is to help someone find this sport as I did. The camaraderie and competition, the team feeling and hard workouts, and the striving to be better is phenomenal.” Char was one of the first two blind paddlers to compete at the international level, as a member the Team USA in the World Dragon Boat Games in Berlin.
As is a teacher at the Oregon Commission for the Blind, she helps others adjust to sight loss including cooking and social skills. “When I meet someone who is struggling with vision loss, my first response is to get them on a dragon boat,” she says. “Paddling can work magic for people and take them away from despair and bring hope and a drive to win both on the boat and in life.”

Finding an accepting team and an instant second family

Lethally Blind team member Adrienne Lattin has felt that “magic.” She only knew a few people when she moved to Portland to attend law school. “When I joined Lethally Blind, I had an instant second family,” she says. “They are a team who accepts everyone for who they are. They have seen me at my best and my worst and many of the members have supported me through very difficult times. Being on a team where most of the people know about the ups and downs that blindness adds to everyday life without asking brings an added ease to being around the people.”

“There are 20 other people with you in the boat when the rain is coming down and you can barely drag your paddle through the water because there are so many waves. But being on a team is also about the support and friendships that survive even off the water,” she says.

For team member Chari Chauvin, the experience has been equally life-changing. Over the past two years, her vision has radically decreased due to severe stage Glaucoma. As she says, “I realized my world was narrowing. I sold my car and bought a bike, then sold my bike and bought a cane, all within six months.”

“As a member of Lethally Blind, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with others in the vision loss community. The varying experiences with vision loss among my teammates, their wealth of knowledge, and amazing strength has opened doors for me and continues to help me maintain a positive outlook through some difficult adjustments,” she says. “Paddling for Lethally Blind has allowed me the chance to be successful at a team sport, and gives me confidence and courage. I’ve experienced incredible camaraderie and caring, like none I’ve ever had before. I don’t think I can truly put into words the pride I feel in my ability and in my team.”
NWABA, which has supported the Lethally Blind team for three years, agrees. “We support Lethally Blind because it allows participants of all ages who are blind or visually impaired an opportunity to improve their health and wellness, build friendships and gain the confidence to succeed in other areas of life,” says NWABA’s Executive Director, Billy Henry.

Dragon boating is one of the fastest growing water sports in the world. Locally, it’s making a difference for a team of paddlers one person, with a desire to move the boat and life forward, at a time.