Story 4 of 6

By Jo-Anne Rogerson and Kim Short, KAB Members

“Your team becomes your family, the paddle becomes your best friend, the boat becomes your home and racing becomes your life.”


This quote from the Paddlechica resonated with Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team as we prepared to participate in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival in Florence, Italy in 2018. So many considerations. Training, fundraising, travel, time away from work and family. Would we be ready? Could we perform as we had in the two previous IBCPC festivals, placing first at these participatory races?

The IBCPC is an ‘international organization whose mandate is to encourage the establishment of breast cancer dragon boat teams, within the framework of participation and inclusiveness.’ That does not preclude some teams from participating with the intent to perform their very best and competitively race down the course. We proudly wore the Canadian flag on our new uniforms and we came to compete in the biggest breast cancer survivors’ dragon boat festival that had ever taken place in the history of the sport.

We committed to months of intense training, indoors during the winter and outdoors in the spring, training camp in Sarasota FL, including drills and race preparation. Add in an endless number of sit-ups, pushups and cardio workouts, members of Knot A Breast were ready to compete at the IBCPC Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy.

International festivals for breast cancer survivor dragon boaters began in 2005, in Vancouver, BC, with 61 teams and approximately 1,400 in attendance. In 2007, the paddlers flocked to Caloundra, Australia with 85 teams and 1,800 in attendance. Then on to Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 2014 with 65 teams and 2,000 in attendance. The IBCPC was formally established at the Peterborough festival and it is a growing international festival held every four years. Knot A Breast was the fastest team in Peterborough and again in Sarasota, Florida in 2014. There were 101 teams and 3,000 in attendance in Sarasota. There were 128 teams from 28 countries in Florence, Italy. There were approximately 3000 participants in the three-day festival along the Arno River.

Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team photo at 2018 IBCPC Festival, Florence, Italy: (left to right) First row: Leslie Williams, Ann Hewitson, Lynn Youngman, Liz Psutka, Helen Shearer, Sharon Hielema, Aleta Thompson, Sharon Richardson, Lorraine Martin, IBCPC Ambassador to KAB Anna-Gloria; Second row: Donna Reise (steersperson), Rebecca Walker, Vivian Medley, Carrie Brooks-Joiner, Michelle Lapointe, Marg Piper, Christine Carey, Anna Candelori, Shida Asmaeil-Yari, Lynda Benison, Nancy Lynn, Kathy Levy (coach), Karen Goldsmith, Nancy Jones; Third row: Geri Schweinbenz, Jo-Anne Rogerson, Tracy McInnis, Kim Short, Judy-Anne Sleep, Kathy Martin, Kristen Winkworth, Vera Fritz, Nancy Hindmarsh; Back row: Carol Myers, Marla Iyer, Kathy MacFarlane, Shelley Lockley, Penny Enos

On Thursday, July 5th, 2018, on our way to the one allotted on-water practice, team members took notice of dozens of signs posted throughout Florence and at the park entrance featuring our incredible, famous coach, Kathy Levy! As we made our way into Cascine Park along the Arno River, excitement mounted as we passed hundreds of team tents already set up in the athletes’ village on our way to find our Knot A Breast tent. The athletes’ village and waterway was a beehive of activity as last minute preparations were taking place including setting up the port-a-potties, the tents, the timing and announcement booth, the vendor area, the marshalling area, and the security fencing. The excitement level was building. We loaded our practice boat and settled into our practice drills.

Coach Kathy and Steersperson, Donna Reise had scouted the race course. One experienced teammate said quietly, “you will experience a wide variety of emotions over the next few days”. Lots of butterflies, extreme heat, and anticipation mixed with anxiety. Kathy started to call commands and we settled into our familiar drills. It felt good to sit in the boat. Afterwards, friends who had not seen us paddle before were heard to remark on how we could paddle so well together and the military precision of our movement as a team. We had put in the time. Now we just had to execute the plan. We had a great (albeit hot) practice.

The Opening Ceremonies held on Friday, July 6th, 2018 was nothing short of spectacular. Areas of Florence were decorated in pink in honour of the Firenze in Rosa event. Teams from around the globe met at the Piazza Pitti to line up for the Pink Parade of Nations. Teams paraded along the Ponte Vecchio Bridge where tourists and team supporters lined the streets as we all walked proudly holding our team flags. The Knot A Breast supporters were easy to find along the parade route dressed smartly in their new KAB purple golf shirts and hats. A few stepped in to join our formation as we made our way to Piazza Signoria.

The array of colours of team jerseys from around the world was astounding, and energy levels were high. A formation of jets did a fly-by releasing a cornucopia of colours in their contrails. After such an exciting day, we needed to rest up and focus for race day. 

1st Race Day, Saturday, July 7th

The first race for Knot A Breast was Race 4 at 9:24 AM. We paddled to the start line never taking our eyes off Coach Kathy sitting on the drum. Deep breaths in and out. Eyes inside the boat. Focus. We have trained for this. We were in lane 3 up against Australia, two teams from the USA, and two teams from Italy.

The announcer calls out “Ready Ready”… and off we go! We came in first place with a time of 2:21.740 (minutes:seconds). 

In between races it was important to eat light, keep hydrated, and move. There was plenty of time to visit with other teams from around the world and to browse (or shop) at the vendors set up in the park. Some of us stayed at our tent and caught a little shut eye!

Heat 2 was at 5:42 PM. Breathe. Focus. Eyes in the boat. Off we go again. We were up against two USA teams, New Zealand, and Italy. This was a very tight race with a first place finish of 2:24.010; the USA Dragon Dream Team placed second at 2:24.270.  Too close!

Day one was over. After a light healthy dinner, we needed to get a good nights’ sleep. Instead of counting sheep, the race pieces floated in our brains over and over again…Hold; Ready Ready; The Start; Race Pace/Middle of the Race; The Finish.  

2nd Race Day, Sunday, July 8th

Family and friends have gathered along the banks of the Arno River. We know they are there, but we cannot cross over the bridge for even a quick visit as the team must stay close together.

Heat 3, Race 25 in Lane 3. Breathe. Focus. Eyes in the boat. Off we go again against New Zealand, two USA teams, and Italy. This certainly wasn’t our best race. It was a close race with first place going to Cansurvive from New Zealand with a time of 2:24.350; 2nd place to USA’s Dragon Dream Team with a time of 2:24.380 and Knot a Breast with a 3rd place finish of 2:24.820. We had some work to do to re-focus before the next race. Visualize. Keep moving. Breathe. Hydrate. Visualize. Keep moving. Breathe. Hydrate.  

Final race, Sunday, July 8th

The time had come for the final race of the 2018 IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival. As we proceed to the marshalling area, one could not help but notice the vast sea of pink t-shirts lining the banks along one side of the Arno River while friends, family and supporters were lining the opposite side. What an incredible sight! Need to stay focused.

Eyes in the boat. Deep breaths in and out.

Over the loud speaker we heard, “LANE 3…C A N A D A  Knot A Breast-A!”, with Italian enthusiasm! We were competing with USA’s Survivors in Sync in Lane 1; New Zealand’s Cansurvive in Lane 2; USA’s Dragon Dream Team in Lane 4 and Italy’s Florence Dragon Ladies in Lane 5.

This race felt different than the others; it felt good…like a machine moving through the water. Our blades knifed and ripped through the water in complete and powerful synchronization. There was a dull roar in our ears as we paddled up the Arno, but we did not know what it was.  Up. Up. Up. Up. Up. And more Up’s (increasing the power and rate of our paddle blades)!!!!

We crossed the finish line not quite sure of the end result, but we all knew it felt strong. And then we get the sign…WE DID IT!! Time 2:20.330. Knot A Breast crossed the finish line ahead of all the other boats.

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Knot A Breast is a successful team. We succeed because we believe that Together Everyone Achieves More:  

  • Beyond our own races, Knot A Breast team members also participated in composite team races joining forces with Cambrèsis Dragon Boat Team from Caudry, France.
  • We were represented by a teammate in the Sandy Smith Global Finale.

Our team succeeds in part because of our supporters, who contribute so much in countless ways. They include:

  • A certified personal trainer, the sister of one of our members, who lead early morning workouts at the hotel. Christine had us all engaged in cardio-based workouts before we ventured out each day. 
  • Dr. David Levy was there every step of the way tending to our physical needs and advising on many levels.
  • The festival provided us with an Ambassador, the lovely Anna Gloria, who gave us useful Firenze tips, snacks, coffee, and the much coveted water and toilet paper in the athletes’ village.
  • Partners and friends who attended in person on the banks of the Arno or watched video coverage from home.

After our final race, once we caught our breath, we paddled up the opposite side of the bank along the Arno. We saw our KAB supporters of family and friends dressed proudly in their purple shirts. The team side of the Arno was populated with a sea of people wearing the IBCPC pink t-shirts. That was when we realized where the roar of cheering came from during the race! What a sight to behold. The feelings of joy, accomplishment and pride were overwhelming. A memory to cherish for a lifetime.

“Never stop trying; never stop believing; never give up and PADDLES UP!”

2018 IBCPC Festival final race with KAB in Lane 3

Story 3 of 6

By Kristen Winkworth, KAB Member

I joined the Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team in the summer of 2017, just after I finished my treatments and I had one more surgery to go that August. The team asked me if I would be interested in joining them the following summer in Florence, Italy for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival. My husband, Jim, and I discussed it for about 5 minutes. We decided that it would be an amazing opportunity for me to travel with the team and support our teammates as they raced.

At the beginning of 2018, I was nominated by our Knot A Breast executive to represent KAB as a Canadian paddler in the Sandy Smith Global Finale at the IBCPC Festival. I’ll be honest, when I was given this news, I cried and was filled with emotion. I was extremely honoured and very excited to be given this opportunity — especially as a ‘newbie’ —to participate in this important finale. I didn’t expect this.

I did my research ahead of time, because I wanted to know about Sandy Smith. I learned that she was an important woman and as I read more about her life, it further impacted my participation in this event. I read that the Sandy Smith Global Finale is an important tradition at all IBCPC festivals. The finale represents the global nature of breast cancer and it honours Sandy for the extensive work that she did to help new teams in the early years.

It was the most incredible experience! I was in a boat with teammates from around the world and this was truly amazing! There was a language barrier for many of us, but that didn’t matter. We sat in the boat, we smiled, chatted, laughed, hugged and cried together. We had an instant bond and we understood each other’s mixed emotions. There were women from Denmark, Argentina, Germany, Australia, U.S.A. and Canada in our boat. My seat-mate was from Australia and we spent time chatting and getting to know each other, and exchanged emails.

When Sandy’s husband and children spoke prior to the race, I felt a connection to them, having lost my own mother to breast cancer. I could hear in their voices how proud they were of their mom, just as I was of mine. As we paddled, I was paddling in memory of Sandy, a special women who was instrumental in helping to start dragon boat teams for breast cancer survivors in a variety of countries.

After the race, we remained in the boats for the Flower Ceremony, which was very emotional too. Hundreds of gerbera daisies with fuchsia petals were released into the river. The stemmed daisies adorned the river water representing all individuals lost to breast cancer, remembered and revered by those who witness this heart-moving event. The camaraderie of so many people from different countries coming together, all with a connection to each other was priceless. This was the beginning of healing for me in my journey, and it was the beginning of when I started to live my life again — living in the present moment and appreciating the simple things in life. I was able to finally let go of the emotional toll that had consumed my life since my diagnosis, throughout my surgeries and treatments while re-living my Mom’s journey. KAB has played an important role in this turning point in my life as well—helping me to see that there is life beyond breast cancer and that cancer doesn’t define me.

I am so grateful and I feel very honoured to have been part of this incredible experience! I will always treasure the special memories from the Sandy Smith Global Finale. For me, this was a very special role at the 2018 IBCPC Festival in Florence, Italy and I will always be grateful to Knot A Breast for giving me this opportunity. When I returned from Italy and my family and friends asked me about my experience, my first response was, “it’s about the people.” I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world!

Who was Sandy Smith?

Sandy Smith joined the first Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team, Abreast In A Boat, in Vancouver in its second year in 1997. Dr. Don McKenzie, who started the team for women with a history of breast cancer, recalls saying, “Well, if you want to look at how it’s supposed to be done on the water, have a look at Sandy Smith.”

As more Dragon Boat Breast Cancer Survivor Teams were springing up in Victoria and Montreal, and more women from around the world were reaching out about forming their own teams, Sandy enthusiastically stepped up to help them out. Sandy became the first Global Liaison, spreading the sport — and the message that breast cancer survivors can exercise — around the world.

In 2002, Sandy died from recurring breast cancer. In 2005, the first International Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat festival was held in Vancouver. Smith’s teammates came up with a plan to honour her with a special race: instead of pitting teams from around the world against each other, all the boats would be made up of paddlers from different teams and countries. The Sandy Smith Global Finale is held at all the international festivals, including the 2018 festival in Florence, Italy.

Story 2 of 6

By Shida Asmaeil-Yari, KAB Member

When I think back to 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival in Florence, Italy, I have fond memories while being there. Just being able to participate as a paddler was amazing. How many people can say that they paddled on the Arno River?

I was on a ‘composite team’ with some of our Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat (KAB) teammates. The composite teams consist of members from more than one Breast Cancer Survivor dragon boat team that come together just to race at the festival, because they do not have enough members from one team going to make up a full 20 racers in a boat. I really didn’t know what to expect while paddling with another team.

At the first practice we were introduced to a team from a very small town in France, Cambrèsis Dragon Boat Team from Caudry. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French. However, we somehow communicated. Since we as KAB had more experience, the women from France followed everything we did while racing. The French team was very grateful for having us in their boat.

We noticed during practice that this team was very new at dragon boating, but they had so much fun just paddling.  I have always been competitive and also think everyone on KAB has a competitive streak. I realized while paddling with this team to just have fun; winning isn’t important. Having said this, we did win one of our races and the smiles on the French team were priceless. The France paddlers were so ecstatic to win their first ever race. They kept saying, “We love Canada!” and they hugged us tight.

When we got off at the dock I saw our KAB coach, Kathy Levy, with a big smile on her face. She was so proud of us not because we won a race but for being so helpful to these women. I came to the realization how fortunate we are as KAB to have a coach like Kathy. She might work us harder, but it all pays off in the end. She has taught us no matter how many races we win to always be humble.

Knot A Breast and Cambrèsis composite dragon boat team winning in Lane 3

Story 1 of 6

By Helen Shearer, KAB Member and Co-Chair IBCPC 2018 Registration Committee

Travelling to different places with Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team over the years has been a great source of pleasure and enjoyment for me. I have had the privilege to go to some truly unbelievable dragon boat festivals not only in Ontario, but also elsewhere in Canada from the east coast to the west coast, as well as Florida, Berlin, and Florence! Without a doubt the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) festivals are among the largest for Breast Cancer Survivor teams around the world. They are emotional, supportive, and inspirational events for Breast Cancer Survivors to attend. Officially, it is non-competitive, considered a participatory and celebratory event. But I have always thought that if organizers time the races… it is competitive!

With my Co-Chair, Shelley Lockley, for the 2018 IBCPC Festival in Florence, Italy, we were involved in the registration of our team, a unique experience that had its challenges… but nothing we couldn’t handle by grumbling to the event organizers who were most helpful even with a seven-hour time difference.  It was a big learning curve dealing with currency exchange, banking fees, payment deadlines, hotel choices, T-shirt sizing, as well as making decisions on accommodations for our team members. Using the list provided by IBCPC we based our choice on price, special event bus shuttles to and from the venue, and team members on a budget. We also didn’t want our team spread out in different hotel locations, preferring to stay together as a team! We are a team family, including supporters who travelled with us. Our final choice was comfortable, clean and reasonably priced. We were disappointed to learn when we arrived on site at registration that shuttles would not be provided for our chosen hotel… disappointing to say the least. Everyone managed by working together to take cabs, sharing the cost for getting around Florence. Besides, we only ate and slept at the hotel, which, by the way, had wonderful meals.

We were blessed with beautiful weather, hovering around 31 to 33 degrees C most days.  As a team we practice in similar temperatures in the month of July, Ontario’s hottest month. During the festival we had time to watch Breast Cancer Survivor (BCS) teams paddling up and down the Arno River powering to the finish line and doing their best!

The event organizers arranged a “team ambassador” for each BCS team who was our liaison person for help with language issues, restaurant recommendations, as well as places to visit throughout our stay.  Team Knot A Breast was fortunate to have a wonderful women, Anna-Gloria, as our ambassador.  She was extremely outgoing, friendly, warm, and inviting, and learned to love Breast Cancer Survivor dragon boating with a winning team! 

During our very warm racing days, water to drink was difficult to get, the water fountains were slow with warm water and long line-ups. There were no large grocery stores like we have in Canada. Fortunately for us, Anna-Gloria was well connected, arriving on a few occasions with much needed cold bottles of water and nutritional snacks in a large suitcase. Gloria’s help was much appreciated and well received; she was truly our Florence connection. 

Gloria arranged for our team to attend an evening at her Tuscany villa for a ‘rock concert’, with transportation, meal and refreshments. The evening was fantastic!

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We got to meet the band members as well as dance the evening away. One person who stood out especially with Knot A Breast in attendance was the part-time guitarist.  His full-time job was as a surgeon… a breast cancer surgeon! It was a fantastic evening to remember in the Tuscany hills. 

Our trip ended with a wonderful celebration dinner arranged by KAB member, Anna Candelori. We didn’t know how successful we would be so with two first-place wins for KAB, what a party it was! We gave it our all and it was a sweet win to end the festival and truly a trip of a lifetime full of many memories.