Dragon Boat racing empowers these women

Nobody wants to be told they have cancer, but therapy, attitude, and exercise can improve prospects for survival and living a healthy life.

That is why Sandra, Sharon, Isabel, and Betty are among some 20 cancer survivors and caregivers who, through the winter for the past few years, head down to a gym near the Lachine Canal to practice paddling for Dragon-boat racing on the canal in spring and summer. During the winter they practice in a canoe-like setting indoors, seated on benches, with water on each side simulating the outdoor experience.

It’s called the Power of the Dragon group, and starting this month the 20 women who are part of the team will be paddling in the canal itself in training for open-air competitions. They say they love the experience — the exercise and the friendship.

Sandra Sterling joined the boating crew about a year after she was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago.

“It’s just so amazing to be part of a team, let alone a team that supports one another under such circumstances,” Sterling said in an interview.

It hasn’t been a positive experience for everyone, though, and some members have had to deal with recurrence of the disease, and have not survived.

“You can’t imagine how supportive we were when these people were unwell,” Sterling reflected.

“They never felt alone. We became like sisters and relatives, rather than just teammates.”

But the team is not a support group per se, and the health factor was the main reason Sterling joined, and found it fit right in with her needs.

“You exercise your tummy muscles, your legs, your thighs, arms. And how beautiful it is to paddle along the canal!”

Originally, the group trained and paddled at the Olympic Basin, but it became so popular that the team moved to the Canal Fitness gym on St. Patrick St., beside the Lachine Canal where it practices.

The age range in the group is from the forties to the eighties.

Sterling has stayed involved because of “the great feeling of camaraderie and the health benefit. It makes you forget you were ever ill, you are so empowered with the paddle.”

Sharon Bishin, who was treated for breast cancer five years ago, decided to try dragon-boat racing 2½ years ago and hasn’t looked back. Bishin, who does a lot of physical exercise and fitness training elsewhere, says she was drawn to the concept when she read about it in The Gazette and one of her daughters in B.C. had chosen dragon-boat racing as a fitness activity.

“All women need more upper body strength, but once I started, I realized that it’s actually a full-body workout! Physically it was an interesting sport, and psychologically I thought it was interesting, with the cancer involvement in the background.”

Though not a support group, she emphasized, there’s a feeling of
togetherness, and illness is “an unspoken bond.”

When they train outdoors, there are up to a dozen boats on the canal, and when there are races, up to 20 boats participate, some with a cancer connection. In training, participants row for an hour, supervised by a coach, but they also meet socially and Bishin says she’s developed ties with group members, some of whom have been involved in dragon-boating for more than a decade.

“You get to know people slowly. It’s not a glitzy scene. It requires a real commitment. It’s not easy to have that discipline to go every week.”

Once they get into outdoor training on the canal, “it’s a whole different
animal. It’s spectacular to be on the Lachine Canal at six at night, with the sun and the warm breezes.”

She remembered a race a few years back when some 20 boats were lined up and Bette Middler’s Wind Beneath My Wings was playing on the loudspeaker.

“Everyone had a rose, waving it back and forth, and our families were there, my grandkids were there, and there wasn’t a dry eye among us, in the boats or on the land.

“It touches you on a level that is physical and emotional. You are boating for people who aren’t there.”

Isabel Pereira, co-chair of the group, came on board 11 years ago at the invitation of a friend. She had been a caregiver for her late husband, Patrick Pereira, who battled cancer for two years before he died.

“I got involved to please my friend, also a caregiver, but almost immediately I fell in love with the ladies,” she recalled. “Most of them were older than me.

They were an inspiration. Initially it was about cancer, but I soon realized it was really about having fun.

“Within a year they made me chairperson and I felt a bond with the group. I just loved the spirit of the ladies. I have an emotional connection to this team. I enjoy the sport, the practices, the races, and the team in general. We try to stay fit and we like to be role models to younger people.”

Betty Esperanza was diagnosed with uterine cancer ten years ago. Because it was caught early, she was told that with radiation treatment, she would recover. She found out about dragon boating four years ago when she bought a raffle ticket for the group. She was invited to a try-out and remembers that almost immediately she was captivated.

“What was really great was paddling in unison with the team. There was such a great energy, and there was a feeling of peace. We were out on the water at 6pm, the sun was setting, there were ducks on the canal, and it really put my mind at ease. I got hooked in the first hour, and I never stopped.”

The hour of training is done in intervals, with regular breaks, she explained.

“This is a sport to stay fit, but also to have peace of mind. You leave all your troubles behind you when you’re in the boat.”

“None of us talk about our cancer-survivor stories. We support one  another in a loving way. When we get together, we devote ourselves to one another and to doing our best in the boat. It’s not competitive: We want to stay fit, we want to connect, and it’s a safe place to be.” The team will take part with others from across Quebec and Ontario in the 17th edition of the Lachine Knockout competition in June. It also will be part of the 14th annual Cedars CanSupport Dragonboat Race & Festival September 7 at the Promenade Marquette in Lachine, closing the racing season.

Those interested are invited to attend a first session for free. If you sign up, it’s $250 for a year, or $125 for a half season, from May to September. The money is for practice sessions in the gym and the coaching. Fundraising events usually cover the cost of participating in races.

Info: dragonboatmontreal@gmail.com or call 514-591-8256

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