Awakening the Dragon

🕔Jul 28, 2006

On a misty midsummer evening at the Prince Rupert harbour-front, patrons at Breakers’ Pub cluster around TVs to watch the Edmonton Oilers play the Carolina Hurricanes. Only a few tear their eyes away from the Stanley Cup game long enough to observe, through rain-spattered windows, the really remarkable team gathering just outside.

Twenty-one women are assembling around a distinctive marine craft moored at the Yacht Club dock. They’re a collection of unlikely athletes who don’t expect to set any records in the near future. But their recent initiation into a 2,500-year-old Chinese sport is helping them transcend a deadly disease which claims about 14 Canadian women every day, and find power many of them never knew they had.

These are most of the 29 members of the Rainbow Warriors, Prince Rupert’s first and only dragon boat team. Ranging in age from 41 to 78, they come from all walks but share one important trait: all have been deeply affected by breast cancer.

I’ve been invited to join them on their twice-weekly training run, and as we don raingear and lifejackets, I can’t help but notice the distinctive dragon logo – Ron J. Morgan’s tasteful hybrid of Chinese and First Nations design – emblazoned on their bright red jackets and wooden paddles. I also notice that most, but not all, of the women’s paddles bear a pink-ribbon symbol.

“That’s reserved for the 13 team members who’ve survived breast cancer,” explains Joan Patriquin, who coaches the team along with Kris Anderson. “The rest of us are supporters, whose loved ones survived – or didn’t.”

The paddlers’ merriment and anticipation seems to chase away the rain as we take our seats in the sleek 48-foot boat.

Joan takes her usual place at the bow, facing the paddlers and straddling a large drum which is a traditional element of every dragon boat. She’ll be setting the pace and synchronizing the paddling by beating on the drum. At the very rear of the boat, Kathy Yamamoto stands to maneuver the steering oar.

A few minutes later, we are paddling in unison towards the open water, breezing past people who wave from the decks of moored fishboats, motorboats and yachts. Over the next hour-and-a-half, we absorb the training gems offered by Joan. We run through several paddling drills, meant to improve the team’s fitness for the upcoming Kitimat Community Corporate Challenge Dragon Boat Regatta.

The metaphysical beauty of this sport, and perhaps the source of its surge in popularity worldwide, quickly becomes obvious: our power as a team is directly related to our ability to synchronize our focused effort.

As we glide toward the open water, the paddlers’ self-assured, graceful movements belie the fact that most of them had never engaged in competitive sport, much less powered a dragon boat, until as recently as three years ago.

That was when Joan, a 45-year-old nurse who is “happy to paddle anything” in her spare time, was seized by a co-worker’s suggestion that she start a local dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors. [see sidebar: About Dragon Boat Racing]

While Joan consulted books and experts to develop a training regime and recruited the first members from breast cancer support groups, she made a fortuitous acquaintance at a fitness class: Kris Anderson, a 27-year-old former dragon boat racer.

They quickly joined forces. For almost five months, Anderson and Joan led the fledgling team through an exercise program designed to improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance, and teach the rudiments of paddling technique. But an important element was missing.

“We didn’t have paddles, or a boat,” relates Joan. “So we started out in a gym, sitting on stability balls. We [simulated paddling action with] wooden dowels connected by resistance bands.” After several weeks, the team began practicing their strokes in water—still boatless, but using borrowed canoe paddles and perched on stools at a Yacht Club dock.

“’Real’ coaches thought [our regime] was kind of bizarre,” she laughs. “One guy at the marina jokingly asked me if he could offer us some bolt cutters, to set the dock free so we could actually get somewhere.”

When the team decided to raise money for a boat, the same man later donated $500. The people, local government and businesses of Prince Rupert also opened their hearts and wallets. So did Alcan, which hosts Vancouver’s annual dragon boat festival, and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, which offers grant money to teams comprised of breast cancer survivors throughout B.C.

“Any time we went anywhere looking for money, people gave it to us,” marvels Joan. By March 2004, the team had raised almost $20,000 for a seaworthy dragon boat and all the necessary equipment.

On the day BC Ferries delivered (for free!) the brand-new boat, it fell upon the self-declared Rainbow Warriors to paddle their new craft from the ferry landing to its new home at the Yacht Club. The team members climbed in.

“There was this quiet excitement in the boat…all of them waiting for me to say something, their eyes big like saucers,” remembers Joan. “And when we arrived at the Yacht Club, there was a double rainbow behind the boat.”

For every team member, particularly those who have survived breast cancer, this vessel has become-—as Joan puts it so elegantly—a “vehicle for growth.”

I watch Daisy Clayton, seated a few rows up from me on the starboard side. A probation officer from Port Edward, Daisy was diagnosed with breast cancer almost three years ago at age 41. After undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and finally surgery two years ago, Daisy is pretty sure she’s in the clear.

There’s a mindful quality about her strokes. Watching Daisy, you’d never guess that, until recently, she suffered from an intense fear of water—the result of a boating accident at age five which sent most of her family members scrambling for rescue in the chilly ocean. Fortunately, everyone survived, albeit after treatment for hypothermia.

Daisy joined the team last year. Most team members don’t know that during her entire first season she couldn’t bring herself to look over the side of the boat. Today, she’s made peace with the water—and knows she isn’t the only team member that has wrestled that particular dragon and won.

Daisy has also discovered the energizing benefits of vigorous exercise. Apart from traditional dancing which is part of her First Nations heritage, she had never previously embraced physical activity for the sake of sport or fitness.

She’s convinced that joining the team has helped her healing. “In every way,” she says. “Not just physically, but emotionally, psychologically.”

Daisy has made friends with many women she may not have met otherwise. Last summer, she found herself competing in a major race event in Nanaimo – where she and other survivors walked through a long archway of paddles, extended by other competitors as a salute. She was moved to tears by this, and by a commemorative ceremony in which dragon boaters dropped thousands of pink carnations onto the water, each one honouring a loved one claimed by breast cancer.

“The best thing is knowing that I’m not alone; there is support out there,” says Daisy. “And feeling that encouragement to go on.”

From my place at the rear of the boat I hear Joan’s encouraging instruction, which almost sounds like a reminder to do just that: “Eyes up and forward.”

At that moment, I’d been trying to mirror the paddle strokes of Danielle Pollock, who’s seated directly in front of me. After hearing her say she’s spent a good deal of her life on boats, I’d assumed that she was an old pro at this. But when we’re urged to paddle at 80% of our maximum effort for a short spell, she places her paddle in her lap and takes a breather.

“It’s okay to rest when you need to,” says the woman sitting to her right.

It turns out that this is actually Danielle’s first outing with the team. She’s visiting Prince Rupert from the remote Estevan Islands, about 160 km down the coast, where she and her husband are developing a fishing resort.

She’s already survived one bout with cancer, and undergone chemo and radiation. I’m a little shocked to learn that this vibrant woman is, in a matter of hours, about to have a major surgery to further contain that cancer. In a couple of months, she’ll also be undergoing the preventative measure of a double mastectomy, to head off the probability that her cancer would otherwise recur.

“This time, it’s going to be me that tells cancer what to do,” she tells me with a determined smile.

A few minutes later, Danielle deftly slices the water with her paddle again, drawing that life-giving force towards the boat in a clean, strong sweep.

“I think it’s changed a lot of people,” Joan tells me later. She and Anderson are proud of the team’s performance at the 2004 Alcan Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver, and at an event last summer in Nanaimo—where the team came in second in their division.

But Joan insists it’s not really about being first across the finish line. “It’s about how to work with others, and that connection to the water. You forget all your troubles when you go out on the water,” she says. “It’s about being the best you can be, and winning at life.”

When we head back toward the marina, I steal a few moments from paddling to admire numerous bald eagles hovering overhead. The Warriors regale me with stories of orcas and porpoises, seen at close range from the boat.

As we disembark back at the dock, I see that Danielle’s cheeks are flushed. She’s beaming about her first practice with the Warriors, and hopes it will be the first of many.

“Each time I paddled, I confirmed to myself, ‘Yes, I am still here,’” she tells me later. “‘Yes, I will be tomorrow. Yes, I’ll handle what’s coming in September. Yes, I’ll be there to see my boys marry. Yes, I’ll be there to hold my grandchildren. Yes, I can do this. Yes, I can do this.’”

Danielle then heads off to visit a 74-year-old team member who was feeling too ill to paddle tonight. As the other women disperse, several heading to a nearby café, a time-honoured dragon boat ritual comes to mind.

It’s called the Awakening of the Dragon. Traditionally, a Daoist monk kicks off a race event by applying a dot of red paint to the eyes of the carved wooden dragon head which adorns a boat. This symbolic gesture is meant to end the dragon’s slumber and re-energize its life force, or chi, for the race to follow.

What was it that made me think of that? I wonder. Then I remember. It was the radiance in Danielle’s eyes. It appears the dragon has touched her too, and that she’s more than up for the race.

A dragon boat is a very long, narrow boat which traditionally bears a prominent carved wooden dragon head at the prow. It’s powered by the effort of 10 to 50 paddlers (22 is common), a steerer at the stern, and a caller who sits in the bow of the boat and sets the paddling pace by beating a drum and issuing commands.

Competitive dragon-boat racing originated in China some 2,500 years ago. Racing events are held in June, to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a famous leader and poet who committed ritual suicide to protest the corruption of the era. His state (Qin) eventually united all others into the first Chinese empire.

Over the past 25 years, dragon-boat racing has soared to popularity in more than 60 countries. The sport fosters camaraderie, strength and endurance among team members, endearing it to serious competitors and recreational enthusiasts alike.

Festivals and rituals around dragon boat racing are steeped in Chinese mythology around Qu Yuan, dragons, fertility, and disease. Competitions typically range from 200 to 2000 metres, and are typically governed by conventions established by the International Dragon Boat Federation.

An international dragon boat movement has sprung up around breast cancer. It originated in Vancouver in 1996, when UBC sports medicine professor Don McKenzie recruited 24 breast cancer survivors to train as dragon boat racers. McKenzie’s research showed that, contrary to pre-existing medical belief, rigorous repetitive upper-body exercise did not cause or exacerbate post-breast cancer lymphedema. On the contrary, breast cancer survivors who took up dragon boat racing showed a marked improvement in physical and mental health.

Today, more than 500 breast cancer survivors in B.C. participate in 25 competitive dragon boat teams. In B.C.’s northwest, there are dragon-boat teams comprised of breast cancer survivors in Prince Rupert and Prince George. There is also a team in Kitimat, which does not have a breast-cancer survivor focus.

FIND OUT MORE: Canadian Cancer Society
Rainbow Warriors (Prince Rupert) 250.627.8781
NorthBreast Passage Dragon Boat Team (Prince George) 250.564.9654

© Larissa Ardis 2006