Around 2006, Nancy Bennett reluctantly attended her first meeting of the Avalon Dragons. Now she’s hoping others will make that move and discover the camaraderie among the breast cancer survivors.
“You don’t even have to talk about anything. It’s just there,” she said. “The camaraderie is so incredible.”
This Saturday, the group is holding a “Try It Day” to encourage other breast cancer survivors to join the team to get fit, have fun and make new friends. Those interested are asked to meet at the Paradise Recreation Centre, 68 McNamara Dr. for a short talk followed by a paddle on Octagon Pond. Rain date is Sunday at 2 p.m. Paddles and personal flotation devices will be supplied.
Bennett’s initial reluctance was brief and she helped the team build its boat and launch it in 2008.
The experience has not only bonded her with breast cancer survivors locally, but across North America and around the world as the movement took off. And she can’t say enough about the fitness benefits from the sport and related activities.
Along with two other Avalon Dragon members — Marie Hyslop and Shirley Thorne — Bennett travelled to Israel earlier this month to join the Montreal survivors’ team Two Abreast (Côte à Côte), for a 10-day adventure in the Holy Land that ended with their first-place win of all breast cancer teams competing in the international festival.
The Avalon Dragons have participated in a festival a year, but the Israel trip has been the biggest adventure for Bennett and her fellow travellers.
They based in Jerusalem for five days and then in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, for the last four days of the trip.
The experiences found them climbing through narrow underground tunnels and caves, rappelling down a mountain, sifting through an archaeological dig for chunks of 2,000-year-old pottery, frolicking in the Dead Sea, visiting the Holocaust Museum and exploring all the other phenomenal sites.
In Jerusalem, they visited the Western Wall and inserted small pieces of paper in the crevices.
Bennett inserted a prayer for her daughter-in-law, who has leukemia. There were prayers for relatives and friends, as well as for team members who have had setbacks.
“It’s the most beautiful country. It truly is the Holy land,” Bennett said.
“You just go, ‘Oh my God.’ You just can’t imagine a place where every square inch seems like it has a story to tell.”
The team raced on the Sea of Galilee and the event featured not only survivor teams but other categories of racers.
Their first race for the St. John’s and Montreal combined entry was 7:30 a.m. and the sea was calm and the heat not yet oppressive.
“Even so we had to push really hard through to the end, but we did and we won the race,” Bennett said.
“It was nearly 40 C when we were called for our second race. We were paddling against other experienced breast cancer teams and we knew it would be challenging. It was very hot out in the boat and we doused ourselves with water from the sea in an attempt to cool off a little before the race started.
“We were treated like celebrities during the closing ceremonies when we were presented with our medals. Only the first place teams in the various divisions received medals, so we were pretty pleased with ourselves. We were the top survivor team in the first ever Dragon Boat Israel Festival. You can imagine our joy.”
The welcome that dragon boaters get never surprises Bennett. In visits to other festivals, they have met survivors from around the world. In 2010, in Peterborough Ont., some 2,000 breast cancer survivors attended the International Breast Cancer Dragon Boating Festival, an event to be held every four years.
“To see that number of people from England, Italy, South Africa gathered and competing, I can’t even begin to explain how emotional it was,” Bennett said.
They are putting two teams — competitive and recreational — in an upcoming festival in Barrie, Ont.
The opportunities aren’t just for competitive racing, Bennett said.
Members can join for the recreational team and Avalon Dragons put off boot camps through the winter. There’s pool paddling leading up to the racing season as part of the fitness and prevention regime.
There are 55 survivors involved in the group and there is always room for more, Bennett said.
They plan a repeat of a mini festival in Paradise in late July, where the Avalon Dragons will play host to community teams racing for health charities.