‘We are a sisterhood of survivorship’: dragon boat team celebrates 25 years

A Winnipeg dragon boat team is celebrating 25 years of competition, and fighting breast cancer.

Every member of team “Chemo Savvy” has faced or still faces a breast cancer battle. This year the dragon boat team is marking 25 years of fighting the mighty waters of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Sylvie Mathers is one of the original members. She fondly remembers the team’s first race in 1998, “We still raced with a smile on our face and we finished last, but we were still smiling,” she said.

Mathers says at the very first team meeting there was a roomful of women hoping to paddle.

“They needed twenty to be in the boat. At that time they just drew names out of a hat and my name got drawn – number 36.”

Eventually she got the call and training started.

“We didn’t have a dragon boat. We trained in war canoes. We didn’t know the stroke. We just were so happy to be together and to tell our story through dragon boating.”

Team president Tammy Mayer says breast cancer dragon boating was born from research that showed paddling was ok for those diagnosed with the disease, “Back in the day when a woman received a breast cancer diagnosis it was understood that you couldn’t exercise anymore, you shouldn’t use your upper body,” she said.

Mayer says the team now trains year-round in the gym as well.

“We are a sports team. So we are what we consider elite athletes but it is way more than a sports team. We are a sisterhood of survivorship.”

Brenda Millan joined the team three years ago, “I was diagnosed in 2018 at 31, triple positive so I’ve had multiple surgeries, multiple times of chemo, its metastatic cancer so I’ve been diagnosed four times,” she said.

 Millan says dragon boating is the right sport for breast cancer, because the team works together on and off the water.

“Once you’re with these women you are enveloped, it’s a second family really.”

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