By: Anne Cahill, KAB member

My story begins when I was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia CML in June of 2016. I had just started a daily oral chemotherapy when I received the dreaded “call back” after my regular mammogram and was diagnosed with Breast Cancer as well. I had a lumpectomy and luckily did not require a separate chemotherapy.  I weighed the pros and cons with respect to my ongoing CML treatment and “opted out” of the standard course of radiation.  At that point I decided that the medical team had done their job and it was now My job to get moving, get in shape and show cancer who was Boss!

I had heard about the Knot A Breast breast cancer survivor dragon boat team and their accomplishments but was hesitant to reach out. I called Geri, the new membership co-ordinator, and got some information about the team and how to join but didn’t follow through. I just wasn’t confident that I could do it! Even though I had been athletic in my younger years and loved playing sports, I was intimidated to try a new sport that I had no background in.  Was I too old to learn a new sport? Was I too physically-depleted from cancer treatment to join this team?

The idea of dragon boating continued to ruminate in my mind as I got stronger and healthier in 2018.  I started walking, golfing and playing pickle ball.  My husband and I joined a gym.  A year later, I was able to put my reservations aside and made that second call. The rest is history in the making!

I have come a long way since that first race nearly two years ago! It was months before I understood the nuances of “the start” and it will take me a long time and much practice to do it well.  I am beginning to understand how important fitness and training is as I continue in my journey as a dragon boat athlete. As Coach Kathy Levy lovingly puts it, “I am a work in progress”.

Knot A Breast at the start line in Lane 4 (second from left) at Hamilton Waterfest, 2019: Anne’s first race (photo credit Sandman)
The 2018 Newbies at their first race in 2019: Anne Cahill is fifth from left  

All new members compete in one race their first season.  I will never forget that day we got into the boat for our first competition at Hamilton Waterfest in July, 2019.  I had only graduated from the safety boat, where I watched the team practice, to being in the dragon boat paddling weeks earlier.  What seemed not so difficult from a safe distance was much more demanding once seated, hip to gunnel,  paddle in hand. I had just barely figured out what side I would paddle on and here it was Race Day! It was so emotional, I had tears in my eyes as I got in the boat and was thankful for the sunglasses I was wearing.  The enormity of how far I had come, and how I never gave up, came to me all at once. These reflections were quickly replaced by nervousness as we made our way out to the starting line. The race was both scary and electrifying! “Scary” because I forgot to keep my head up and missed my stroke and “electrifying” because we did it, we crossed the finish line! 

Anne Cahill’s husband, Laurie, was proud of her after first race 2019

After the boats were put away for the season in 2019, this retiree headed to Florida and was fortunate to paddle with a team there for several months. It was amazing to get out on the water again! Paddling with alligators watching from the shallows and having the occasional dolphin race with us really made for a different experience! We enjoyed lots of golfing, and I took out a membership at a local gym in order to maintain and increase my fitness level. When home for the holidays that year I was able to work out with Knot a Breast in Welland for several weeks doing circuit training and paddling in “the tank” (See Knot A Blog: KAB Members in The Tank). It is a large pool with running water that simulates being on a moving body of water like a lake. You really have to experience it to understand! Incredible!

Anne training in Florida winter 2019/2020: Anne smiling at camera

In January 2020, I was back in the sunny south, still working out, still paddling with the team there, golfing, playing pickle ball and staying connected with my team and their fitness plans. Excitement was mounting and everyone was looking forward to what they 2020 season was going to bring. Who would have thought it would bring a global pandemic that would overwhelm our healthcare system, have us isolated from those we love, close our borders and cancel our whole season?  

We were wintering in Florida, somewhat oblivious of what was going on throughout the world, as Florida remained “business as usual”.  It was at the urging of our daughter, the Prime Minister and coach Kathy to come home early that made us quickly change our plans and return to Canada in March just in time to see borders close! Now safely back at home,  I watched from my window as spring ran into summer, and then summer into fall in what felt like the movie “Groundhog Day”.  I developed a daily routine of: Get up, check the news, walk, read, make meals, and clean up.  I did this all while anxiously waiting for an announcement of a vaccine that would help us to return to the people and places and activities we loved!

Pre-pandemic our team was made up of two groups: “Newbies” and “Vets”.  “Newbies” are team members that had joined that year.  Their full integration into the team starts with the Newbie race.  That is the initiation and introduction into dragon boat racing! After that event, team members are considered “Vets”. However, it is not until the next season that members participate in the full card of races and truly feel enmeshed with the team.  There has always been this yearly cycle of Newbies and Vets within our team. 

The pandemic has definitely created some grey areas in this normally stream-lined process.  We now have “Pro-Newbies”: women who joined in winter 2020, who have been participating in training, but have NOT actually gotten into our dragon boat.  They are like “Super-Newbies” with lots of fitness training but no practical experience! They have been bumped as “Newbies” by the women who have joined this winter 2021. Both groups of women are hungry and eager to get a taste of what dragon boating truly feels like, to get the thrill that the seasoned members have when they talk about the joys of dragon boating.

With this pandemic pause in mind, I now affectionately refer to the women who joined with me in 2019 as the “Pre-Pro-Newbies”.  We are the women who got that “little taste” from competing in our first race.  We did a lot of training in the boat that season, before and afterwards, and were excited and anxious to see how our training and commitment translated on the water! That “taste” meant we actually know what we are missing! And so for our group, it has felt like “paddling purgatory”, where we didn’t quite make it to the place of sharing stories of big races and training camps, but we are not brand new team members either. Our mettle is anxiously waiting to be really tested!

The vaccines started arriving here in Canada at the start of 2021, and as we approach summer 2021 we are hopeful to all get the promised “jabs” that will hopefully allow us to resume our normal activities. Recently, I was very fortunate to receive my second jab because of my blood disorder and am now fully vaccinated! It was definitely a Happy Day! I am looking forward to the day we are all vaccinated and paddling together as a team. For this “Pre-Pro-Newbie” it feels a bit like starting over. However, it is very reassuring to know that I am in very good company!