MARIETTA – Betsy Iller has a background in paddleboard, kayaking and whitewater rafting.
When she joined the Marietta-based dragon boat team a year ago, she experienced a new level of personal fulfillment.
“I’m always happy on, in and around the water,” said Iller, who exudes a sense of youth at the age of 66. “I moved to Marietta from Maine to be with my aunt in the fall of 2020 and she told me I need to join the dragon boat team. I worked virtually from September to May and couldn’t meet anybody.
“I received an email from (Mid-Ohio Valley Dragon Boat team president Judy Seitz) and she said they would love to have me come by, so I did. This has really become my community. This is where I met like-minded women of similar age and love what I love.”
This past Saturday at the Marietta High School boathouse located on Gilman Avenue, the dragon boat team continued its series of community paddlers. Their goal is to create awareness throughout the community and recruit new paddlers.
The first week of the event, a total of eight individuals were taken out on the Muskingum River as a way of introducing them to the sport. The series will continue every Saturday into late August unless the “dragon ladies” are attending a festival where boats compete against each other.
This week, several members are joining a group of women representing the Kentucky Thorough-Breasts dragon boat team for a festival in Buffalo.
“We’ve had really good feedback that first week and I think our eight new paddlers really enjoyed it,” said M.J. Ebenhack, who recently celebrated her 70th birthday and organizes the community paddle series. She also is co-chair of the team’s outreach committee. “We stress fun, fitness and friendship. That’s our theme.”
“With this Saturday series, we are keeping two questions in mind. Are there men in the community who would like to dragon boat? And secondly, with our team practices from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, that’s right over the dinner hour and hard for some of us who are committed – is that a time people in the community can attend?”
Community Paddles are scheduled from 9-10:30 a.m. every Saturday through Aug. 27 at the Marietta High School Boathouse (814 Gilman Avenue in Marietta). No Community Paddles are scheduled for this week, July 23 and Aug. 6. The Mid-Ohio Valley Dragon Boat Team is scheduled to compete at festivals on those dates.
Individuals must be 18 years or older and be fully vaccinated. For more information, contact movndragons.org or (740) 434-5638. Team information also is available on Facebook.
Former soccer official John Mentink is one gentleman who returned for a second visit last Saturday. The 69-year-old resident of Parkersburg showed interest because of his wife’s feedback. Susan Eberts-Mentink is a breast cancer survivor. She was experiencing back problems but joining the dragon boat team and working her upper body made the pain go away.
“Everybody thinks dragon boating is like canoeing,” John Mentink said. “It’s not because you have to get your arms and everything out of the water so you don’t interfere with anybody else. You have to mind your stroke. It’s a timing thing.”
Breast cancer survivors are not the only individuals on the team. At 66 years old, Marietta resident Cathy Rees is considered one of the coaches. Last Saturday, she worked with several individuals on technique as they sat in a stationary boat docked on the river.
“I want the new paddlers to have a positive experience – for this community event, we want people to know we are compassionate about what we do,” Rees said. “You would be surprised how many people in the community don’t know about the sport.”
“I went to Warren High School one year before Title IX. I was athletic, but I never had the opportunity to do a team sport until dragon boat. It’s a whole year commitment. When the season is over, we are preparing for the next season. The goal is to be in better shape than I was the year before. It’s a little harder as I get older.”
Dragon boat racing is believed to have started 2000 years ago in China. The boats are long and normally hold 20 paddlers, each with one oar, sitting two-by-two – plus a steersperson and a drummer to everyone in sync.
Rees, who spent several years watching her son compete in crew and grew fond of the water, referred to studies performed by Dr. Don McKenzie associated with women and breast cancer. Dr. McKenzie is currently a physician for Canada’s national canoe team.
“For so long, women who were breast cancer survivors were told they should not do anything with their upper body,” Rees said.
Dr. McKenzie’s findings suggested, what could be a more visible way of challenging the myth than having a bunch of breast cancer survivors paddling canoes?
Iller is a breast cancer survivor. She continues an active lifestyle. In fact, she arrived at Community Paddle Day on her bicycle.
“Everyone here is a warrior,” Iller said. Whether you have breast cancer or something else, you don’t get to be this age and not have some hurdles.”
Judy Seitz, who at the age of 66 and is entering her third year as president of the Mid-Ohio Valley Dragon Boat Team, is awed by the effort and desire of those ladies who have beaten breast cancer.
“They just motivate me all the time because some of them are the strongest paddlers and the most committed,” Seitz said.
During this past offseason, the organization went on a retreat at The Wilds. A total of 11 members attended a camp in Florida. They lived in the same house, wake-up call was set for 5 a.m. and a majority of the day was spent paddling.
“We drove down to Florida in three cars and lived in a house together there for the camp,” Seitz said. “And 11 women can live in a house together and get along.
“I feel like the core of my friendships is through this.”
From beginner to expert paddler, the Mid-Ohio Valley Dragon Boat Team does not discriminate. The Community Paddle Day attracted Rachel Carter of Marietta, who moved to the Mid-Ohio Valley from Las Vegas just more than a year ago.
“I did take some classes and had the chance to be in a plastic kayak in a pool. There you go upside down – so that’s it for boat experience,” Carter said. “With dragon boating, I’m a beginner trying to read the water.
“I was sore on my outer. It was just a matter of keeping a tight form. It’s like throwing a pickaxe because it’s all forward. Less canoeing and more pickaxe.
Contact Kerry Patrick at [email protected]