Teenage cancer survivor’s dramatic finish inspires at Carolina Cup

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With a punishing wind in her face, 15-year-old paddleboard racer Kira Buchanan had to bring her board to shore before reaching the last buoy of the grueling Graveyard Race in Saturday’s Carolina Cup. But a crew of supporters behind her, and a cheering crowd ahead of her, Buchanan was determined to finish the race, running several hundred yards on foot to the finish line of the 13.2- mile standup paddleboard race that takes competitors around the island of Wrightsville Beach.

Having just beaten cancer, the world-class race was just another challenge for Buchanan to overcome. But just like her fight against anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a form of brain cancer, Buchanan wasn’t alone when she made her way on foot down the beach strand towards the finish line at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort. Several of her fellow racers, including some of the top finishers, rushed to join her, while the crowd watching the finish cheered her on.

“I was determined to get to the buoy, even though it it felt like it was getting farther and farther away. My hands were already bleeding and the wind kept picking up harder and harder. I knew it would take another hour or two, so I went in straight to the beach,” said Buchanan, who beached her board just south of Johnnie Mercer’s Pier.

When her friends and supporters saw her running, several rushed down the beach to join her for the finish.

“It was so amazing,” Buchanan said of the outpouring. “It was so cool to see everybody and all the support they were giving.”

Among the supporters running with her were members of the Wrightsville Beach Junior Elite Team, known as the JETS. Less than two years ago, local JET racers were raising money to help Buchanan in her fight against cancer. Now they were helping her cross the finish line of her first Graveyard Race. And it wasn’t just Buchanan’s peers that flanked her through the closing stretch, as elite racers also came to her side. One was Fiona Wylde, an Oregon-based racer who has become a family friend and mentor. Another was second-place finisher April Zilg, who used to race out of Wrightsville Beach before relocating to California.

Joey Buchanan, Kira’s father, said the support from Wylde, Zilg and all of the JETS helped inspire her to preserve through both the treatment and the race.

After being diagnosed in 2017, Buchanan went through eight months and radiation and chemotherapy. She’s now a cancer survivor, having been in remission for more than a year.

But throughout her treatment both Kira and her father knew that she’d compete again.

“She continued to paddleboard throughout her whole treatment,” Joey Buchanan said. “It was pretty incredible. She would snowboard and paddleboard, at whatever capacity she could do it. Sometimes it was just a mile at a time.”

While at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore., Kira would walk a track at the facility, pushing her chemotherapy bag with her. By the time her treatment was over, she had walked a distance of two marathons.

“I was very positive I was going to get back out on the water,” Kira said. “I was determined to stay active and fit. I trained, did some running and skateboarding. I did as much as I could with the energy I had.”

In 2017, Kira competed in her first Carolina Cup at the age of 12, completing the six-mile Money Island race. She left Wrightsville Beach that year with the goal of one day competing in the cup’s flagship event, the Graveyard race.

However, it wasn’t until just three weeks ago that Kira and her father realized that she was ready to give the Graveyard race a shot. In participating in the 24/Go Because You Can fundraiser, which features paddleboarders across the country teaming up to paddle for 24 hours straight, Kira paddled nearly 30 miles, signalling to them both that she was ready to give the Graveyard a shot.

“We decided ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s go for it. We’ll see how it goes,’” said Joey Buchanan, who accompanied his daughter during the race. “We wanted to come, but we knew we would have a hard time going and not paddling.”

Kira was able to stay close to the pack for most of the race, but started to slip behind after paddling through Mason Inlet. Once the winds started picking up, it became harder to keep her board pointed straight at the next buoy, as she instead started drifting too far away from the shoreline, her father said, forcing her to turn back to shore.

Erin Carter, whose son Campbell competed in the Carolina Cup and is a member of the JETS, said the Buchanan’s finish was a special moment for members of the team.

“She’s one of us. We love her, she’s part of our local paddle family,” Carter said. “When she came in, with everyone cheering for her, it was the highlight of the whole event.”

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