STRATHMERE - When Dawn Robinson paddled across the finish line, she finished next to last.
As the sun set, the crowd of onlookers on the beach who waited eagerly for her arrival cheered and clapped and shed tears of joy with her. She was a winner.
Robinson, 33, a paraplegic, recently completed her first race - nearly five miles prone on a paddle board. She trained for only four weeks and until then previously had paddled only about three miles at a time.
"It was definitely challenging, but it was amazing," she said. "There was no way I was giving up. That wasn't an option."
Robinson was left paralyzed after she blacked out in December 2012 while driving on the Atlantic City Expressway and her vehicle slammed into a tree in Hamilton Township.
She recalls little about the accident, but says the horrific crash that shattered her back and left her in a medically induced coma for eight weeks gave her a new perspective on life.
"Before my accident, I didn't really take chances or do things that scared me or challenged me," the former aesthetician said in an interview. "Now, I feel like I have a second chance at life and I don't want to pass up anything that I have an opportunity to do."
With her trainer escorting her to the shoreline behind the Deauville Inn in Strathmere, Robinson became the first paraplegic to complete the Upper Township Beach Patrol Paddle Board 5K race, which has been held for at least five years. She joins an elite group of paraplegic athletes along the East Coast to compete in a long-distance paddle event, organizers say.
She lined up on a 12-foot board next to some of the top veteran local paddlers to set off on a grueling race in the bay that challenged her endurance and determination.
"I was really excited for her," said Bruckner Chase, a marathon swimmer and Upper Township Beach Patrol coach who trained Robinson. "What she did was show people [with disabilities] what they can do."
Robinson took up paddle boarding through an Ocean City Swim Club program founded in 2012 by Chase and his wife, Michelle, that works with paraplegics and others to boost their confidence and get them back into the water.
The couple was encouraged by Michelle's sister, Becky McGill, a spinal therapist at the Bacharach Rehabilitation Institute in Pomona, to use their expertise as watermen to assist her patients.
Every Tuesday evening, the swim club trains a handful of physically challenged athletes alongside others. On Sundays during the summer, they paddle prone on lifeguard racing boards at Beesley's Point in Upper Township.
"I didn't think I would be able to get in the ocean again," said Josh Vila, 24, of Tuckerton, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a car accident two years ago. "When I am in the water, I feel like I'm normal again. There are no limitations."
Robinson, who enjoyed recreational surfing at the Jersey Shore before her accident, also loved getting back in the water. But this time with a mission.
Since her accident, Robinson, of Woodbine, has been on a journey to find independence in a wheelchair and turn around a destructive lifestyle that included abusing drugs and alcohol.
She said poor road conditions, inattention, and prescription painkillers may have caused her to pass out on Dec. 16, 2012, while driving to meet a friend for an early birthday celebration for Robinson.
"All I saw were trees in front of me. I said a prayer: 'God, please let me make it out of this alive.' That's all I remember," she said.
Her father, John, an advertising sales representative at The Inquirer, received a parent's worst nightmare: an urgent summons to quickly get to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City.
"All we can tell you is she is alive," her sister, Tina Robinson, 30, of Ocean City, recalled a doctor informing the family. "We didn't know what that meant."
While Dawn remained unconscious for two months, her father visited her daily. She was on full life support.
"I just kept praying in her ear - over and over," he said. "When she came out of it she said 'the only thing I remember is you praying [The Lord's Prayer].' "
After spending several months in rehabilitation and undergoing back surgery, Dawn Robinson slowly began building a new life. She recently moved into a handicapped accessible apartment and began driving a specially equipped car.
"She has come really far," said her longtime boyfriend, Josh Shadel, 27, of Mount Laurel. "We're all very proud of her."
Robinson hopes her story will inspire other paraplegics to combat physical obstacles. She uses her powerful upper body strength to put her on equal terms with others in the water. She also set her sights on another paddle race this summer and plans to enroll in community college courses to become a counselor.
"I really believe that God has a plan for everybody. If I can make an impression on one person's life that would mean the world to me," she said.