Rowing abreast to hope and recovery

Members of the Fort Langley Canoe Club-based Abreast with FORT-itude will be rowing in international waters in September for the Club Crews World Dragon Boat Championships. - Contributed photo
Members of the Fort Langley Canoe Club-based Abreast with FORT-itude will be rowing in international waters in September for the Club Crews World Dragon Boat Championships.
— image credit: Contributed photo

A group of local dragon boaters and cancer survivors will be bringing their message of hope halfway across the world.

Members of the Fort Langley Canoe Club-based Abreast with FORT-itude – which includes rowers from White Rock, South Surrey and Vancouver – will be attending the Club Crews World Dragon Boat Championships hosted in Ravenna, Italy, in September.

The crew – one of five in the Lower Mainland connected with the Abreast in a Boat Society, the world’s first breast cancer dragon boat team – will be among 6,000 athletes comprising 400 teams from 24 countries that will be rowing in Italian waters.

Crew member and nurse Cheryl Watson told Peace Arch News that aside from the competition, the 25 women who make up the crew will be focusing on outreach.

“We’re representing threefold – Abreast in a Boat, The Fort Langley Canoe Club and Canada. As representatives of Abreast in A Boat, we try to do outreach with other women who have had breast cancer and those who have been affected by it,” Watson said, noting that there will be other breast cancer teams at the world championships that they will aim to connect with.

“It’s a very physical and emotional high.”

The crew has been preparing for the world championships for a year-and-a-half, going through the channels and Dragon Boat Canada to meet qualifications.

In order to make it to Italy, the women had to go to nationals in Victoria last August, where they had to place in the top five in Canada.

“Fortunately, we got silver medals,” Watson laughed. “So, we were off.”

This will be the second time the North Delta resident, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, will travel to Italy for the world championships.

In 2002, a year after joining Abreast in A Boat, Watson’s name was drawn to go to Rome for the competition.

While there, she met an Italian woman who offered her services to the crew.

“She came up to us and said, ‘I’ve had breast cancer and I’ve been in a dragon boat, can I come with you?’” Watson recalled.

“So she came onboard and drummed for us for a couple of races and subsequently started the first breast cancer dragon boat team in Italy. Now, there are six or seven.”

The Abreast in a Boat Society was founded in 1995 by UBC sports medicine specialist Dr. Don McKenzie, who started a dragon boat team in 1996 for women with a history of breast cancer.

What began as a research study on the positive impacts the strenuous activity would have on the survivors has now become “a floating support system.”

“Not only did it prove that exercise reduces mortality and incidents of reoccurrence in breast cancer, it dispelled the myth that breast cancer survivors couldn’t do upper body exercises. Now there are more than 160 teams around the world,” Watson said.

“It started as an experiment with exercise but there is definitely such a bond there with people who range in age from their 30s to their 70s.

“We’re one team, and we work together.”

Watson added that the crews are always looking for new members, especially those who may need support after a recent diagnosis.

“Someone who is feeling fragile and sees this should give us a call. So many people want to talk to them and get them out on the water,” she said. “For women to see us out there and say, ‘wow, they were once as vulnerable as I was’ and see how far we’ve come, it makes a difference.”

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