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Oh, the places you'll go
Nancy Crawford, a breast cancer survivor, has found her calling with Dragon Boat Atlanta
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Nancy Crawford stands with some of the medals she’s won in dragon boat racing around the world. Once a runner, Crawford discovered the Dragon Boat Atlanta Team and has been contributing to their and other teams’ efforts in places such as Australia, Venice and at the Lake Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. - photo by Tom Reed

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Hear South Hall resident Nancy Crawford, a breast cancer survivor, talk about her dragon boat experience in Venice, Italy, as part of International Pink Sisters.

BRASELTON — Nancy Crawford used to run just to keep in shape.

Her breast cancer diagnosis in September 2002 changed everything. But then, “I got an e-mail asking me if I wanted to try ... a new sport,” said the 54-year-old South Hall resident.

What followed next was her introduction to dragon boat racing.

“You either love it or you hate it, and I fell in love with it,” Crawford said. “I gave up running.”

She now serves as a “stroker” for Dragon Boat Atlanta, a group of breast cancer survivors committed to increasing awareness of the disease while promoting an active lifestyle.

A dragon boat is a long, narrow vessel that gets its power from paddlers. The boat, with roots in ancient China, is generally rigged with decorative dragon heads and tails.

As the stroker, Crawford helps set the pace for the rest of the team, which consists of 20 paddlers, a steerer and a drummer (or caller).

Dragon Boat Atlanta has participated in many races over its five years, including the Annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, which is set for Sept. 13 at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue at Clarks Bridge Park in Hall County.

Her team is going to Windsor, Ontario, next week for the International Dragon Boats for the Cure.

Crawford, a bookkeeper currently out of work, recently spent some time apart from the team.

She traveled in May to Italy to participate in the 34th annual Vogalonga, which features a 30-kilometer route through the famed canals of Venice.

“Just to be in Italy and see all the history was really awesome, but the thing that was most touching and brought tears to my eyes was when we were approaching the (starting line) and the cannon sounded and the bells of Saint Mark’s (Basilica) played,” Crawford said.

“And Saint Mark’s only plays for special occasions, so to us, it was like they were playing for us,” she said. “... Just to be there and see all that and to be healthy enough to do it ... was very touching.”

Dragon Boat Atlanta has 35 paddlers, including supporters such as Crawford’s husband, Carlton. The makeup of the team depends on the race, Crawford said.

“A couple of years ago, we had a survivor team and a supporter team,” she added. “Our goal, after we get the breast cancer portion built up, is to bring on an all-cancer team.”

Crawford has fully immersed herself in the sport, winning medals, including the team’s first first-place finish in October. She works out in a lavender painted exercise room that her husband built in the basement of their home. The team practices every Sunday afternoon at Clarks Bridge Park.

She said her experiences with the team have been rewarding in many ways.

“I know people all over the world now and if I had not had cancer, I would never have experienced it,” Crawford said.

And team members have formed close bonds with each other.

“One of our survivors has been diagnosed with liver cancer, so now she’s having to go through chemotherapy all over again. ... We’re there for her, if she needs us.”

Her team hasn’t lost any members since its founding, Crawford said.

A ceremony remembering those who have died from breast cancer takes place at each of the races promoting awareness of the disease.

After some music and a speech or the reading of a poem, “everyone throws a flower into the water and it’s either in memory of or honor of a (breast cancer victim),” Crawford said. “And there’s usually a lot of tears, because you’ve lost a great friend.”

As a breast cancer survivor herself, having been cancer-free for five years, she said she views herself and others like her as a “winner if we can make it to the start line.”

“We’ve made all our hurdles to get there,” she said. “... Just to know that you’re alive after having cancer, to be able to get out there and show people I’m alive, I’m here, look at what I can do.”

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