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Athletes and Kings (Originally Published June 10, 2012)

It’s a blustery Sunday. The weather channel says the wind chill is minus 2 degrees Celsius. The wind is howling from the northwest at 40 to 60 km per hour. Mercifully, the rain only comes in the form of light, intermittent showers.

My hands are numb from holding the steering oar . My voice is weakening. My co- coach, Crystal Cameron, has just docked her crew by steering her three foot wide dragon boat into a 3 foot 6 inch opening, having to “come in hot” as she puts it – going full speed with the winds coming side on and almost no margin for error. There is about a one foot leeway between stopping or crashing on shore, adding a second dimension to the challenge. Crystal , an excellent steerer, somehow makes it and docks the boat alongside mine. I had a relatively spacious 7 feet of space to shoot for, since I was the first boat to dock in the narrow, “U” shaped berth.

“I knew you would come in first”, Crystal laughs. “This is not for the faint of heart”.

She has just summarized the mantra for the Avalon Dragons Breast Cancer Survivor team. Almost half a century in sport has left me with moments of time etched in my memory, moments that mark the process of achievement. The moments after triumphant victories, agonizing defeats, significant milestones. I have heard many times from virtually every retired top level athlete I know, “I just wish I had taken the time to enjoy it more.” As a coach, I have learned from that and I always tell my athletes to take the time to enjoy significant points in time

– to step back from time to time and savor special moments.

Standing on the wharf on Octagon Pond and looking at 36 determined athletes’ faces, most of whom had just completed their fourth 7 kilometer workout in the last 36 hours, in what only can be described as challenging conditions, was for me, one such moment of time.

“Survivors” does not begin to describe this group. All of these women have survived breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, but what really bonds this group is their passion and resolve. Starting a dragon boat team in St. John’s six years ago could not have been easy. While there is a traditional annual rowing event, the Royal St. Johns’s Regatta, dragon boat paddling was something completely new to the province. The Avalon Dragons were working in a vacuum in which there was no paddle sport, no clubs, no equipment, no infrastructure and no funding. What they did have, though, was fortitude. They built a boat, in my opinion the best dragon boat in the country. They worked through some rejection from groups who did not understand what they were about and found a perfect location and tremendous community support in the aptly named Paradise, Newfoundland. They developed coaches by raising money to send their coaches away to train. As for the sometimes difficult wind and weather – well, the team’s original captain, Roseann Seviour, tells me about how they once practiced in torrential rain and cold, as one of the top Survivor coaches in the country, Kathy Levy, was in town and, “we don’t like to cancel”. She tells me she has never been so wet or so cold, but Kathy got to see what dragon boating was about in Newfoundland. Trust me, this group does not like to cancel practice for weather conditions they consider “inconvenient”.

I have only seen collective drive like this in athletic groups at the highest of levels – every one of those groups had Olympians, and top National Champion athletes as members. The fact that athletic drive of this level is emanating from a group of people, most of whom are aged 50-60 and who for the most part, have never participated in athletics, is beyond remarkable.

We go to dinner as a group. I hear many inspirational stories. I get to individually interact with many amazing people. Julie Bettney is one a group of pioneers who worked together building this team. She was a Provincial Cabinet Minister. I can see that she is universally respected by the crew. In talking to her, I can only imagine the emotional and intellectual capital she has used to contribute to the formation of the Avalon Dragons. Unable to paddle one of the practices because she was nursing a sore shoulder, she still came out in the boat and sat in seat 10, without a paddle, in support of her team. Cancel? Miss a practice? Not this group.

Julie, though, would not think this was anything to write about. For this group, this is routine and expected behavior. The current captain, Bev Arnott, just coming off surgery, set the example by doing the same thing for several practices. She is smarter than Julie though. She had a thermos of coffee with her.

One of the athletes tells me that immediately after her own breast cancer diagnosis, she saw Julie, in the middle of her treatment, appearing publically, conducting her political duties. “Julie was the first female celebrity to appear in the public eye, during treatment, without her hair, and she projected an attitude of, I can beat this. I can’t tell you what that meant to me at that time in my life. Even though I didn’t know Julie personally, I wanted to meet her. That’s why I am paddling dragon boat today.”

The stories continue at dinner. Karen and Rose tell me about how the improved fitness from dragon boat paddling has led to camping and canoe trips of some distance, “not far, a couple of days of paddling”, how much fun they are having, and how much they are looking forward to upcoming 60th birthdays. Jill tells me that she teaches Grade 4. She is an extremely positive person, always smiling, and obviously a tremendous role model for the children. “Lucky kids”, I say, and I mean it more than she knows.

Alice Mannion, who took over from Rosanne as captain for several seasons, currently assists Neil and her husband Brian every practice with getting the boats and putting them away, which given the conditions can be time consuming and challenging. Brian and Neil not only look after the boats, but also drive the safety boat during every practice. I asked Crystal, who saw them in action all weekend, “What can you say about those two guys?” Crystal, who combines farm girl charm with a deep intellect, can say a lot in a few words. She smiles and says simply, “Kings”.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the coaches, Paul, Bruce and Terry. These coaches are smart, dedicated, unafraid to listen and evaluate different ideas, obviously committed, and always looking to improve. It is the rare coach who has the confidence to bring in outsiders, hand them the oar and say, “I’ll just quietly paddle, I want to learn all I can from a different perspective.” These coaches have reason to be confident. They are doing an absolutely incredible job.

There is something magical happening on Octagon Pond in Paradise, Newfoundland. It’s not for the faint of heart, and they don’t cancel, but they have a lot of fun, and there is a shared bond that you can’t put into words. They have absolutely amazing coaches, captains, team leaders, and athletes. Generous community and corporate sponsors have helped provide four boats, with a fifth on the way. They have started a local festival, and the Town of Paradise has provided land and committed to do site improvements for future development of a permanent clubhouse.

With this group, there is no telling how far they will have progressed the next time I see them.

Can’t wait. I just hope the wind is down so I can dock the boat if Crystal beats me to the wharf.

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