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Making a row for Ground Zero

by Alston

Some 40 Coastal Carolina University students, faculty and staff are busy prepping for a battle of the boats at the 5th annual Ground Zero Dragon Boat Festival, slated for Saturday, April 27, at the Market Common.

Activities for kids, entertainment for adults, food and games for all and a performance by American Idol contestant Jason Castro will be going on in Valor Park. The races, however, are the main attraction, and they'll be taking place on the Grand Lake, beginning at 8 a.m.

Competing on one of more than 50 teams are Darcy Coughlan and Melissa Paschuck, co-workers in CCU’s Office of International Programs and Services, and co-captains of the Paddling Petukhs.

A dragon boat race is a 200-meter sprint in a longboat with 20 paddlers, a steering coach and a drummer. The drummer keeps the pace at the bow, while the steering coach (or steed) navigates from the rear with a pole, acting as the rudder.

Paschuck and Coughlan’s original idea was to load the boat with students, but the timing of the event altered that plan. “We didn’t intend for it to be only CCU staff,” they say. “We originally wanted mostly students, but the race is two weeks before finals.”

The team will be composed mostly of staff members, but students will also join in on the fun, including Rebecca Spano, a junior management and marketing major, her roommate Gwen Browning, a junior interdisciplinary studies major,  and International student Jasmine Isaacs, a health promotions major here for one semester from Australia.

Each team will engage in two races of four boats each. The three teams with the fastest times then compete in a third and final race to declare a winner.

When Coughlan first heard of the event, her thoughts wandered to her time in Asia. “I grew up in Hong Kong where it’s a big festival,” she says. “I’ve done about five races in my life, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out they had a Dragon Boat Festival in Myrtle Beach.” Paschuck immediately recruited her.

According to Coughlan, strength isn’t a key component. “A lot of muscle isn’t necessary,” she says. “It helps, but the most important thing is timing. Everyone needs to be in sync.”

Her teammate is also aware of particular techniques of winning a race, “The beginning of the race can make or break you,” says Paschuck. “If you don’t get a strong start, you’re probably not going to win.”

Paschuck’s knowledge comes from participating last year on a team with Jennifer Sellers, the sustainability coordinator at CCU. This year, Sellers is a co-captain for the Rowing Roosters, which contains “a diverse group of CCU faculty and staff” members.

“I was hooked after my first experience,” says Sellers. “I wish they would do one in the fall. We certainly have the weather for it.”

It’ll be Sellers' fourth time as a paddler. She says her initial attraction to the event, other than it being a “fun and unique activity,” was ease in participating, without devoting a lot of time.

Coughlan believes mental focus is key. “Participants must be focused even before the starter’s gun goes off.” she says. “You have to be prepared at any second. Once they have alignment, it starts quickly, and you’re all out.”

Sellers points out the importance of teamwork. “You have to be cohesive with your team,” she says. “You all have to be in balance and in sync, because it’s all about the strokes. You really have to dig that paddle.”

Practice is limited, with the teams gaining access to their boat just two days prior to the race, and receiving only an hour to work with it. “I trained three times a week for three months for a race in Hong Kong,” says Coughlan. Until they get their hands on the 20-foot longboat, cardio is the only option.

“They do some intensive practices because you only get one hour,” says Sellers. “It’s this huge adrenaline rush because you’re so pumped and that carries over to the first race.”

“It’s not as competitive as other dragon boat races; it’s more about having fun while raising money,” says Paschuck. “But there are no slackers. When your adrenaline gets going, you can’t help but be committed. It’s so exciting!"

The event is sponsored by Ground Zero Myrtle Beach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “transforming teenagers' lives.”

“The Dragon Boat Race was created as a fundraiser,” says Scott Payseur, founder and executive director of the nonprofit. “All the money raised goes back into all the outreach we do throughout the school year for middle and high school students.”

Launched in 2009, the festival has become a major fundraising event for Ground Zero, and one of the most anticipated events in Myrtle Beach.

“We were looking for a creative and unique way to raise funds and awareness,” says Payseur. “A staff member who had participated in a Dragon Boat Festival suggested we start one here in Myrtle Beach.”

Some of the proceeds go toward providing a unique space for teens to hangout – the old Rivoli Theatre at 908 Chester St. in downtown Myrtle Beach.

According to its website, Ground Zero leased the theater from the city of Myrtle Beach for $1 a year for 20 years to house its new venue. Payseur and company are currently transforming the theater into a safe, contemporary space, complete with a coffeehouse, concert venue, an indoor sporting area and other features.

All three women have their reasons for participating. Sellers is looking forward to “winning” or at least placing in the top three.

“We were really close last year. I feel like our team has a pretty good shot,” she says.

“I’m doing the race because it's fun,” says Paschuck. “I met so many people I didn’t know last year and made many new friends. That we get to fundraise for a good cause is an added plus.”

“I’m excited because I only know maybe five people on the team,” says Coughlan. “I just moved to Myrtle Beach, so I’m excited because it will be a good way to meet people."

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