VERMONT — The crew at Dragonheart Vermont — a dragon boat team comprised of breast cancer survivors — has paddled together for almost a decade through serious health conditions and grueling global competitions. And this year, they’ve paddled their way to the origin of dragon boat racing, China’s Pearl River Delta. There they’ll compete in the International Dragon Boat Federation’s Club Crew World Championships in Hong Kong.
At the end of June, the Dragonheart Vermont — which includes Waltham’s Mary Ann Castimore, Ferrisburgh’s Carol Bowles and Middlebury’s Elaine Coon will head to the South China Sea with 25 of their Vermont teammates and coaches to compete in the biggest competition of their dragon boat careers. They’ll go head-to-head against teams from around the world in 200-meter and 500-meter races in the breast cancer survivor division and the female grand master division for women over 50.
Qualifying for the world championship wasn’t a fluke. This year has been “paddles up” for Dragonheart, said Castimore, referring to the aggressive stance that dragon boat racers hold before the gun goes off and the contest begins.
VERMONT — Dragonheart Vermont, the dragon boat club for and in support of breast cancer survivors and patients, has established the cancer-support program Survivorship Now.
Through a range of wellness programs and classes, Survivorship Now seeks to create a support network to help cancer survivors recover and get back on their feet. Middlebury’s Elaine Coon, an original member of Dragonheart, explained that moving ahead after cancer can be difficult.
“When you’re first diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s a huge shock,” she said. “So you’re focusing on the treatment and getting through the treatment. And then when you’re done, it’s all of a sudden — like now what?”
Survivorship Now is hoping to help Vermont cancer survivors figure out the “what.”
Volunteers run the program, and it was jumpstarted with funds raised from the annual Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival, which Dragonheart organizes each August.
For more information on Survivorship Now, head to survivorshipnowvt.org.
“Moments before a race starts at the starting line … we all sit up and forward, ‘paddles up!’” she said.
With their shafts held vertical and their blades in the water, Dragonheart plowed through the competition, always raring to go. Last August, they won the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival in Burlington, which they host, and they placed well in a number of other competitions.
“We expect to win when we go in,” said Bowles. “I’m the absolute least competitive person in the world until I get in a boat.”
But even for a team that has placed in the upper third in world-class competitions from Australia to Canada, some of the Dragonheart team members were still caught off guard when they qualified for the world championship.
“We didn’t realize we were that caliber,” Castimore said.
“I don’t think we even realized we had enough points,” Coon added. “We were surprised.”
A SUPPORT GROUP
Over the past two decades, dragon boat racing has taken off among breast cancer patients, survivors and supporters. It began to grow in popularity when a Don McKenzie, a doctor in Vancouver, British Columbia, formed the first dragon boat team for breast cancer patients in his Canadian city.
At that time, doctors were warning patients not to exercise. But since McKenzie first founded the team, called Abreast in a Boat, many doctors have come to take a different approach to remedial care.
In a paper of McKenzie’s findings from those first two seasons, he wrote, “No new cases of lymphedema arose, several women reported improved range of motion of their shoulders,” and other issues that some of the women first experienced waned.
But as much as Dragonheart members tout the physical benefits of dragon boat racing, they’re even bigger proponents of the mental ones.
“One of the things that I like to call Dragonheart is an extreme support group,” said Castimore, who has climbed mountains all over the world. “The people that belong to it are just really incredible people. All of us are really supportive of everyone else … It gives a person really suffering from the disease something to look forward to.”
“It’s kind of the ultimate team sport because you have to be in total sync with the rest of your teammates,” said Bowles, who has raced as far as 21 kilometers in a dragon boat race with her teammates. “Everyone’s paddle has to hit the water and come out at exactly the same time.”
That unity and focus, said the three Addison County women, can make a world of difference for someone struggling with cancer.
“I remember somebody else saying that when we line up for a race, our eyes are in the boat — focused,” said Castimore. “For that brief period we’re in a boat racing, we all forget we have breast cancer, and we are just athletes working as a team to do our best to win a race. For that, we give cancer a poke in the eye.”
Those interested in supporting Dragonheart’s trip to Hong Kong may call Mary Ann Castimore at 802-877-3674 to learn about buying a tax-deductible tribute flag in honor of a loved one. The flags will be flown in Hong Kong this summer.