Vt. cancer survivors keep paddling

ADDISON COUNTY — Many of the women on Vermont Dragonheart, a dragon boat racing team for breast cancer survivors, hadn’t heard of dragon boat racing before their cancer diagnoses, but now they’re devotees of the sport.
They’ve done video training in Montreal to work on their form and they recently returned from an international competition in Ontario where they placed 15th out of 84 teams. Six Addison County women are stalwarts on the team.
The sport originated in China centuries ago, but it is now gaining popularity worldwide, particularly within the breast cancer survivor community.
There were teams of cancer survivors from as far away as South Africa and New Zealand in the Ontario competition. All the teams brought the traditional crew of 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steer-person.
The Vermont Dragonheart team practices on weeknights in Burlington. Elaine Coon of Middlebury joined the Dragonheart team when it first started in 2004. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and has gone through chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
She describes her experience on the Dragonheart team as, “the silver lining no one wants to have.”
 For her, the bond between cancer survivors — both in Vermont and internationally — is especially powerful.
“The paddling experience is fun,” she said. “But to think that there were over 80 teams (in Ontario) and that all these women had breast cancer and survived — the spirit is absolutely amazing.”
Coon and her teammates from Addison County often carpool up to practices in Burlington when it’s warm enough to paddle on Lake Champlain.
During colder months, the team meets to cross-train, and every winter Waltham resident Mary Ann Castimore organizes a day of snowshoeing up Buck Mountain.
Castimore’s sport of choice is mountaineering, and her two cancer diagnoses — one 24 years ago and another 15 years ago — haven’t kept her from climbing the world’s tallest mountains. She’s climbed Mount McKinley and Mount Fuji in Japan with a groups of breast cancer survivors.
This is Castimore’s fifth season paddling with Dragonheart Vermont, and she plans on traveling with the team to competitions in Florida and Connecticut later this year.
“We have a great time,” Castimore said. “And when people are going through a tough time we support them, we cry with them.”
Dragon boat racing became popular in the breast cancer survivor community in the late 1990s after Don McKenzie, a Canadian doctor, encouraged survivors to form the first team in 1995.
The dragon boat movement originated partly to counter a misconception that repetitive upper-body movement was bad for breast cancer survivors.
But since then, the sport has demonstrated that dragon boating can help survivors both physically and also by offering them a community of people who have shared similar experiences.
Louise Crawford of Ferrisburgh has been on the team for six years.
“In Ontario, it was wonderful and very emotional to be with so many breast cancer survivors who are doing so well, and have gone through so much adversity,” she said.
For the past three years, Crawford has also been the co-chair of the silent auction at Dragonheart Vermont’s annual Lake Champlain dragon boat festival in Burlington.
The festival raises money for the Dragonheart team and camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a summer camp for children who either have cancer or have overcome the disease. Last year’s festival raised $110,000 for each organization.
This year, close to 100 teams have already registered to compete in the festival, which will occur on August 8.
  Teams of 20 paddlers and one drummer compete in races that last less than two minutes each. Race organizers provide each team with a professional steer-person. 
Races will begin every twelve minutes and the winning team will receive the Citizens Bank Championship Cup. Aside from retaining the Dragonheart team’s competitive spirit, the festival will also reflect the spectrum of emotions in the team experiences throughout the year.
The Dragonheart team will award prizes in 11 categories including “best cheer” and “It’s all about the drummer.” Shortly after noon, teams competing for the breast cancer survivor cup will honor those who have died from the disease by linking boats and participating in a traditional flower ceremony.
 Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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