For the last five years, Mayo Clinic Health System has been hosting the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival in La Crosse. Teams of 20 paddlers compete in the race on the Black River, raising money for breast cancer research and treatment.
One dragon boat team is the Mississippi Sisters, a group of 20 women age in their early 30s to late 60s who share a special bond.
One a recent day on the Black River, the boaters are milling around their equipment shed near a boat launch. They hand out life vests and size up paddles. After some stretching, the women pair off and prepare to load the dragon boat.
It’s a massive canoe, with ten plank seats, just wide enough for two people to sit next to each other. Some paddlers introduce themselves to their seat partner, meeting for the first time.
As Sandy Hammond-Gonia explains, no matter who is in the seat beside her, there’s an automatic camaraderie between teammates here.
“You know, even though I don’t really know all of these women, we share an experience, that’s for sure,” said Hammond-Gonia. “Dealing with the Big C in your life.”
“The Big C”… Cancer.
The Mississippi Sisters is a team of breast cancer survivors.
It’s pretty common to find teams like this in the world of dragon boating. In the late 1990s, a study found paddling helped reduce post-surgery complications in breast cancer patients. Since then, survivors and their supporters have helped grow the sport around the world.
And Hammond-Gonia says the shared experience means the team has an added appreciation for paddling.
“Its just being here and being healthy. Healthy enough to do this,” she said.
These women are not just healthy… they’re strong.
On the boat, they reach forward in unison, plunging their paddles into the river and drawing them back and out of the water. The dragon boat picks up surprising speed down the river, passing amused boaters idling by.
They paddle for a few minutes at a time, before Coach Lori Freit-Hammes calls out “Let it run!” and the team relaxes back into the boat, out of breath.
Terri Pedace, the team captain, says paddling can be an empowering experience for many women who have been through a cancer diagnosis.
“Sometimes, you get the feeling that your body has betrayed you, because you know ‘what have I done to have my body in this situation,’” said Pedace. “And so dragon boating is a way to reclaim your strength.”
But it’s not all serious work out on the water.
During one break, Freit-Hammes explains what muscle groups the paddlers should be using.
“Your core locks in, and some of you will eventually start to feel your pectoral muscles work… yep, that’s your boob muscles… well some of you don’t have the boobs, right? That’s what you’re telling me, I just heard that,” she says laughing.
Jokes and laughter like this are a common occurrence among the Mississippi Sisters. And its part of what drew Heather Willis to the team this year.
She said there are moments at practice where Freit-Hammes will say something about paddling that really resonates.
“Today, she said, ‘Don’t think about how you look, think about how you feel.’ And I was like that’s right.” said Freit-Hammes. “When I was in chemo and I was bald and I was like so yellowy-skinned, I didn’t think about how I looked, because I knew that I felt terrible. But what is my body telling me? What do I need to do right now to get me through this? [There are] other things too that she says I’m like, ‘Wow, cancer taught me that,’ and I can put it in the boat now.’”
After only a few practices, Willis admits she’s already hooked. Or as the Mississippi Sisters say… she’s been “bitten by the dragon”
Many women on the team compete in national and international races. Four members even traveled to Florence, Italy earlier this month to participate in a festival for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission.
Teri Pedace and teammate Corry Van Aelstyn say they’ve met survivors from all over the world at dragon boat festivals.
“The women are so amazing. I mean you can’t believe how strong they are and how empowering that is to be part of that community,” said Pedace.
Van Aelstyn adds, “Yeah, there’s an upside to breast cancer and dragon boat is it.”