Off-Balance But Community-Grounded: Canada’s First Dragon Boat Team for Paddlers with MS

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By Randy Pinsky

Dragon boating is a tough sport, requiring fitness, a strong core, and the willingness to push through pain and inclement weather. So it’s not exactly something you think would appeal to (or even be possible for) people with multiple sclerosis (MS). A neurological disorder that causes deterioration of the muscles, most would assume low impact sports would be a better fit.

But Sydney Spraggs from Vancouver, B.C. had other ideas.

Seventeen years ago, she was motivated to start paddling by a survivor friend. In considering the social isolation and unpredictability of an MS diagnosis, Spraggs realized that a team sport would be ideal for enhancing quality of life for her and others in her situation.

And so was launched the MS Off-Balance Dragon Boat Team. The first of its kind internationally, the team is powering through life and the water, challenging assumptions with every paddle stroke.

Spraggs and Team

How It All Started
Spraggs herself was never really into team sports. A spunky 76-year old, she had always been a competitive skier. But when a diagnosis of MS made this more challenging, she wondered if she could build a network for others in the same situation.

The Off-Balance boat is “a mixed team of able and disabled paddlers…with a great love for paddling to our best ability and a healthy appreciation for a cold beer.” The team is a cohesive unit and they are there for one another, on and off the water.

With a disease like MS, it is critical to be surrounded by a network of people who understand what you’re going through. It’s too easy to say “I’ll come next practice” and let months elapse while you sink into a hole of self-pity.

But the Off-Balance team does not allow that.

They regularly check in on one another and expect them to be at practice- whether in person or virtually. Indeed, during the pandemic, trainings were maintained at the same time online as when they had been out on the water. This routine has kept them fit and connected.

But…How?
You might wonder how it could be possible (or safe) for people with MS to dragon boat, given the physical challenges. With adaptations such as lifts, boarding volunteers (at one regatta, local firefighters helped; “All the other teams were jealous”) and adapted seats (invented by retired engineer Clive with Tetra Society), Off-Balance has dispelled doubters.

Spraggs shared the powerful feeling of pushing off the dock and “looking back and seeing all the gear left behind.” On the boat, they are strong. They don’t need wheelchairs.

They are Free.

But It’s Just for Fun…Right?
Those who assume disabled athletes are less competitive would be sorely mistaken. The Off-Balance Boat is there to own it and have the hardware to prove it. These include collecting silver (2015, 2019) and gold (2019) at the Steveston Dragon Boat Festival, and scoring well at the Alcan International Dragon Boat Festival.

While they competed in the 2018 All Access Cup sponsored by the MS Society of Canada, they generally race against able-bodied teams. Captain Spraggs recalled being neck-to-neck with a competitor; “I remember thinking, this is amazing- we’ve made it.

Health Benefits
As a sport, dragon boating has many benefits, many particularly suited for those with MS.

According to the MS Vikings team of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Rowing Center, “Paddling uses muscles, contributes to static and dynamic balance, and improves coordination [as well as] strengthens endurance [and] muscle flexibility.” The team was started by a physiotherapist, who emphasized that “exercise strengthens muscles and flexibility, improves disposition and cerebral health, and lowers exhaustion levels.”

“Paddling is the Next Best Thing to a Cure” (Team Tagline)
Many did not expect the Off-Balance team to continue after its first season, “Yet here we are, seventeen years later,” quipped Spraggs. “It’s all about mental attitude and support, and the determination that nothing is going to stop you.”

“We’ll take you as you are, whatever your ability and situation- paddling to end MS.” As stated by competing BC team MS Warriors, “Th[e sport] has become a way for people with MS to engage socially and physically with the world that some have lost.”

So rather than let their disease define them, the Off-Balance team is smashing assumptions about their abilities. Together, they are boosting one another's morale, using athletic competitiveness with a healthy dose of humor; for, as they say, “Aren't we all a little Off-Balance?”

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