Survivors Find Sisterhood Through Paddling
The athletes of the Heart & Soul dragon boat team are literally survivors.
I am a member of this team of mostly breast cancer survivors — women who range in age from their 20s to 70s — and we recently competed in the International Breast Cancer Paddling Commission’s (IBCPC) Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy. While we placed 21st out of 125 breast cancer survivor teams from all over the world, it’s the adventures, journey and relationships that always make us winners.
Dragon boating is invigorating and unifying. We sit two abreast, 20 total paddlers in a 40-foot-long boat shaped to look like a dragon. A cox steers from the rear and a drummer keeps beat at the front. We work together to paddle, trying to cross the finish line first. And each member brings so much to the group.
A tradition started in China over 2,000 years ago on the premise that the racing would lead to bountiful crops, our team today sees the parallels of dragon boating representing a race to triumph over adversity.
In just four short years, Heart & Soul ranks in the top 17 percent worldwide of breast cancer survivor teams, and we achieved the No. 8 spot in the U.S. More importantly, I personally have witnessed breast cancer survivors identifying as powerful and strong athletic women. I have seen significant development in self-confidence and self-esteem among many members who have developed new technical and leadership skills as they challenge themselves with various opportunities to paddle, steer and drum in a dragon boat.
I have beamed with pride as our supporters (those who have not battled breast cancer) have engaged in our mission and have actively coached, uplifted and paddled along with us to support our endeavors to increase physical and psychological health and wellness for cancer survivors in our community.
We no longer think of ourselves as “victims” and no longer ask ourselves the question, “Why did this happen to me?” Instead we are THRIVERS — courageous athletes conquering and/or living with the disease as we foster love and support for each other on and off the water.
In January 2017, we set a goal of sending our team to the July 2018 IBCPC festival in Italy, it’s held once every four years and involves only breast cancer survivor teams. Of course, one of our major goals was to have fun while paddling on the Arno River. Yet, we also decided we would like to achieve a top-20-percent ranking worldwide.
“When I joined the team in 2014 and paddled the first IBCPC race in Sarasota with 3,000 other breast cancer survivors, I was hooked,” said Heart & Soul dragon boater, Helen Kingston, 69.
“I became an athlete at 64… This team is my heart and soul.”
We practiced three times a week. We worked with nutritionist Betsy Markle, a registered dietician and one of our supporting members. We focused on losing weight so we could have a speedier boat. We attended a full week of dragon boat camp in April and received help from world-renowned coaches from Canada and the U.S. To complete our team, we asked Lighthouse Dragons of Jupiter, Florida to practice with us and join us so we would be able to send 26 paddlers to Italy.
We arrived on July 3 and we had one practice session before the 500-meter races began on July 7-8. To start the festival on July 6, the city of Florence opened up its streets for a “Pink Parade of Nations” featuring all 125 teams. Thousands of paddlers and spectators gathered and cheered for us while we walked over the Ponte Vecchio bridge into the Piazza della Signoria waving our American flags and wearing inflatables and headbands (including spaceships, rockets, flamingos and palm trees) that would remind all that we came from Florida.
Over the course of two days, we paddled in four 500M races. We won our first three races and placed 2nd in our final one. Our cumulative time by the end of the fourth race determined our place among the 125 teams that competed — 21st worldwide, 8th among the U.S. teams.
At the end of the competition, a unique event was held in which one representative from each of the teams paddled together in eight boats down the Arno River. At the end of the course, they linked boats on the water, and we stood in a sea of pink on the banks of the river along with 4,000 additional paddlers as we conducted a “Flower Ceremony” to honor and commemorate those who passed away from breast cancer. It was a unifying, hugely emotional and heart-warming ceremony. The energy of the event and the sisterhood shared was so palpable.
“When just being a survivor is the common thread that brings thousands of women together from all over the world to paddle, you forget about cancer and focus on the life worth living,” said Heart & Soul member Didi Weinreb, 55.
With support from Health First Cancer Institute and our friends and neighbors, we have had an amazing opportunity to lay the foundation of a unique, inclusive, intergenerational organization of women and men who uplift each other through role modeling, mentoring, coaching, teamwork and leadership development as we strive for common goals and celebrate numerous achievements paddling on the water.
In addition to focusing on health and wellness, our organization also gives back to the community and has become actively involved with raising money for breast cancer assistance, as well as focusing on environmental concerns such as Keep Brevard Beautiful and Save Our Lagoon. An unexpected outcome is that we have additionally become stewards of "clean living" in our own backyard.
I'm so very proud of this team. They embody the spirit of achieving and maintaining health and wellness individually and for the community. We like to say, “The doctors saved our lives, and dragon boating saved our souls.” Join us on the Banana River for a paddle — you might just catch the dragon boat fever!
Beth Gitlin is principal and founder of BJG Global Consultants, an organization that provides evidence-based interventions and solutions in business mentoring, leadership development, executive coaching and teamwork for leaders and their organizations.
She also is founder/captain of the Heart & Soul dragon boat paddling team, a local nonprofit that supports health and wellness for over 70 breast cancer survivors and their supporters. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in industrial/organizational psychology at FIT as well as an adjunct instructor in the College of Business.
“The doctors saved our lives, and dragon boating saved our souls.”
Check out this article in our DIGITAL MAGAZINE.