KeepHealthCare.ORG – Local dragon boat racing team of cancer survivors sets sights on international competition in Italy
The Derby City Dragons will compete in Florence, Italy, in July. | Courtesy of Derby City Dragons
When the Derby City Dragons, a racing team made up of local breast cancer survivors, take to the water in Florence, Italy, in July, they’ll hope to be in perfect synchronicity with their strokes.
The 500-meter race against international competition requires precision, tenacity and, most of all, teamwork.
“Some still have cancer,” says Kate Merchant of her team. “We run the gamut in this boat from pretty good health to questionable health. You see all these faces looking back at you and you know who’s sick and who’s not, and they’re giving it everything they’ve got. Sweat’s dripping off them. Knowing what they’re doing, simply because you asked them to, that’s a really humbling feeling. It’s very powerful.”
With Ohio River flooding thankfully in the rearview mirror, Derby City Dragons practice will begin anew sometime around Derby, weather (and the river’s temperament) permitting.
The team’s annual “friend-raiser” kickoff happens next Saturday, June 2, at Apocalypse Brew Works.
The event will feature live music from Nate Thumas, Mark Pyles, Carrie Cooley and more, as well as craft beer brewed on-site and food trucks Bellissimo and Jason’s Deli. There also be a raffle of the annual grand prize, which the team refers to as the “Boatload of Booze.”
The event is more a meet-and-greet kickoff to the season than a fundraiser, but part of the point is that the Dragons encourage anyone interested in joining the team to attend and meet some of the 40-plus members.
Being part of the Dragons, Merchant says, is not just therapeutic, it’s also challenging.
Dragon boat racing is a Chinese tradition. | Courtesy of Derby City Dragons
Merchant, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and had two surgeries during her recovery, was involved in team sports all her life. Support groups were suggested to her, but she had no interest in the traditional groups.
“I had a good support system from my family, so I didn’t think I needed to go sit in a room and talk to strangers,” she says.
But the bonding she and other Dragons have found from the physical and mental challenges of paddling in unison with 40 other women has been therapy in and of itself.
Carol Challas was living in St. Paul, Minn., in 2003 when she was diagnosed. She became involved in dragon boat racing — a longtime Chinese tradition that became a competitive sport in 1976 — while there, then moved to Louisville in 2008.
Wanting to continue with the sport, she formed a team here in 2013 with the help of a friend, David Wicks.
It started slowly, with just eight paddlers using borrowed equipment, but the team now owns training equipment, paddling equipment and its own boat. Five years in, Challas knows she created something more than simply an athletic team.
She recalls a moment in the boat once, when the team was in action, when the enormity of what she was involved in hit her.
“I caught a glimpse of several people’s scars under arms as they paddled,” she says, referring to the scars common to breast cancer-related surgery. “It just grabbed me it. It just really made me realize just how strong each person in the boat was.”
“I love the challenge,” adds Kathie Carman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and joined the team in 2015. But she concurs that the bonds are what truly fulfill.
“It’s almost like family,” she says. “The friends I’ve made being part of this team, I wouldn’t change for anything.”
For reasons on many levels, the team’s motto is, “One boat, one paddle.”
“It’s neat to have a team that’s just dedicated to each other and up for a challenge,” says Wicks, who serves as an advocate and lead steersperson for the team, and whose family has been deeply affected by cancer. “It is a challenge sitting in a boat with 20 other people and being patient, but also putting your heart in it. I say that any day on the water is a good day. Being sick is hard. There’s something about being on the water that’s just calming.”
“It just changes your whole attitude,” Challas says. “By the time you’re done, you’re smiling and you feel good so glad you were out there.”
The Derby City Dragons travel to Florence for Dragon Boat Festival 2018, sponsored by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, from July 6-8. The event on Saturday, June 2, at Apocalypse is free and will run from 4-7 p.m.