The Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team (KAB) is made up of a very diverse, interesting group of women who come from all walks of life. Our team members are all wonderful examples of survivorship, athleticism, resilience and camaraderie. We have team members who have been with the team since its inception in 1998, and women who have yet to race due to two seasons of Covid restrictions. The common denominator among us is the critical diagnoses we have faced, and the commitment we have to improving our health outcomes. The Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team challenges its team members to move forward, physically and mentally, both within our lives and in the dragon boat. Each woman has experienced different twists and turns in their personal stories, and have faced different challenges. Our founder and coach, Kathy Levy, takes these often broken pieces, and somehow puts them together to form a successful team that continues to challenge itself, year after year.
Today’s post represents the first in a series of interviews with current members of our Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragonboat Team. The first interview I would like to share with you is with Geraldine Schweinbenz, fondly known as “Geri” to those of us lucky enough to know her.
A Little Bit About Geri:
Geri was born June 7, 1962 and grew up here in Hamilton where she feels blessed to live in her childhood home that she shares with Bailey, her beloved 19 yr old cat adopted from an Animal Rescue. Geri has enjoyed a long 32 year career as an X-ray technician with Hamilton Health Sciences. However, like many currently working in healthcare, this pandemic has really turned her work life upside down! The ongoing stress and demands of work life has really cemented her plans to retire in December, 2022. She is looking forward to both retirement and kicking off her bucket list!
Geri contributes to her community through a lot of volunteer work. She has been a Big Sister. She is a member of the Optimist Club of Hamilton. She has volunteered with Dreams Take Flight, chaperoning sick and disadvantaged children to Disney World on 24hr whirlwind adventures. The last few years her extra time has been devoted to our team. She is currently the Newbie Coordinator (providing info and welcoming all the new people to our team) and a dedicated member of our fundraising committee.
In May 2012, Geri was diagnosed with Stage III Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. She had a lumpectomy, 6 rounds of chemo, lymph node dissection surgery and 8 weeks of radiation. Geri developed lymphedema in her right arm (an often painful condition) that she manages by wearing a compression sleeve, especially when paddling. This past year, in December 2020, Geri had further reconstruction and reduction surgery.
Geri first heard about the Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team from her chemo nurse while receiving treatment. Geri recognized she needed some support in figuring out what her “new normal” was going to be after treatment. She wanted to get back into shape and feel strong again! She joined the Knot a Breast team in February 2013 after completing her treatment and has been busy training and paddling ever since! The last eight years have included participating in many regional dragon boat festivals and also traveling to compete in both national and international events with the KAB team.
Geri is beaming when she shows up for her interview on this sunny, Sunday morning. We settle in, with coffee and snacks in hand, on my front porch. We are both excited to be visiting outside, after so many months of isolation! Geri maintains her positive outlook as we discuss the hopes of returning to dragon boating. At this point in the pandemic there is not a path for that return. We are continuing to train together on Zoom and get out on OC1s weekly.
JK: So, Geri, what were you like in highschool?
Geri: I was quiet and shy. I loved sports, esp. basketball and volleyball. Always liked team sports, but I was never really good at it. I have played and enjoyed sports all my life. However, Knot A Breast was the first team I was ever competitive with.
Geri goes on to tell me about enjoying growing up in “the Hammer” (Hamilton) and wonderful summers spent at her family cottage. Geri would be considered “seriously low-tech” by millennial standards, and has only basic cable at home. She doesn’t read much, blaming the years of university for “ruining that” for her. (I laugh). She does love murder mysteries like Murder She Wrote and the series Blue Bloods. Geri would definitely be considered a classic kind of gal!
JK: All right, I actually know the answer to this, but I’m gonna ask you anyway, if you went home and found out you had just won $1 million, what would you do?
Geri: I would for sure give money to my family, my siblings. Some of my nieces and nephews, I would give them some money and Also give money to some of the charities.
JK: GERI!!! YOU said you would fix up your place!
Geri agrees that she would ALSO do that as I tease her that “the minute she got it, she was giving it all away”! She laughs and reconsiders her “sudden windfall” plan. She really Would like to fix up her place, pay off her debts, retire ASAP and do some travelling! I promise to remind her of this if she actually DOES win the lottery, before she gives it all away to the causes and people she loves!
JK: Geri, If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?
Geri: Chicken wings. Medium barbecue. Breaded! I love Red Rockets. Yeah, chicken wings and a beer. I like Cracked Canoe….the Moosehead version of Coors Light.
Seriously, Geri? Chicken wings are pretty delicious, but “last meal worthy”? I think Red Rockets has just found their newest ambassador!
JK: What’s your favorite season?
Geri: Definitely Summer. When I was a kid we spent our summers at our cottage on Georgian Bay, and we would be outside playing and swimming all summer. The cottage was built by my grandparents, when my mother was a small child, and we still have it in our family today.
JK: What are your favorite things to do up there?
Geri: Relax and hit the beach! I get up, have breakfast, put my bathing suit on, and hit the beach! I love getting out on my kayak. I also socialize a lot with my neighbors up there as we all grew up together. It’s a great little community.
Geri tells me that her favorite sport to watch, besides dragon boating, is football. The Hamilton Tiger Cats are obviously her favourite CFL team. However, in the NFL, she roots for the Green Bay Packers all the way!
JK: And who is your favorite athlete?
Geri: I would say one of my favorite female athletes to watch is Jennifer Jones and curling. She’s so good! She has “come through” in some tough spots and she always remains calm and composed.
I ask Geri if she curls as well. She tried it once and then realized she couldn’t do it with her shiftwork. She has added it to her bucket list! She has also added golf, paddle boarding and more dragon boating to this growing list.
JK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Geri: That I go up to Northern Ontario teaching in First Nation communities. I am part of a federal program that teaches the students how to take x-rays.
JK: I think that would be very, very rewarding.
Geri: Yes, Very rewarding. I did go twice a year until I had breast cancer. I learned to ice fish, and learned about indigenous culture and enjoyed a traditional feast. I even attended a grade 8 graduation of only 2 students! I returned from Deer Lake in February, 2020, and a week later we were shut down (by the pandemic) so I haven’t been back since. I find it very rewarding going up and helping them and so I hope I can continue to do that, even after I retire.
JK: What traits do you think are essential to becoming a great dragon boat athlete?
Geri: You need commitment, and dedication. It really depends on what you want and how far you want to go with the sport. You need to be open-minded because sometimes you may Think you’re going to be here or there on the boat and then the coach says “This is where I want you”.
JK: Would you call that being “Coachable”?
Geri: Yes, coachable. It’s a team sport so the team always comes first. What’s best for the team. This may not be sometimes what’s best in your mind for yourself but, you know, the team comes first.
Geri talks about being part of the “Back 6” on the boat. That means seats 8, 9, or ten. She prefers the right side, but sometimes she gets asked to paddle on the left.
Geri: It’s not pretty. It’s not my perfect stroke. But I do it. I will go on the “other side” for Kathy.
I think Geri would definitely be considered “coachable”. She seems to truly understand and embody what it means to be part of a team.
JK: What has been your biggest challenge in dragon boating?
Geri: The biggest challenge? Hmmm, sometimes it’s maintaining a fitness level. I will never ever be the strongest person on the team or anything like that, or the fittest, I should say. But I’ve never been as fit in my life as since I’ve been on this team. So trying to maintain that.
JK: Wow. Is that surprising after breast cancer?
Geri: Definitely. I mean I have played a lot of different sports, and definitely played on a lot of different teams, but this has been the most committed I’ve ever been to a sport. I mean I truly love it. But it’s hard work, and you got to keep at it.
JK: What gets in the way of your best performance on race day?
Geri: When I’m dragonboating, probably work. Sometimes I am so tired from work. Sometimes it’s mental, my head is not in it. Like when you’ve had a race, and you got out of stroke, and you’re hard on yourself after. You need to remember that That race is done and you can’t relive it. You need to let go and get ready for the next race!
JK: Do you have a routine of things you do to prepare for a race?
Geri: I try to go to all the practices before a race. Coach Kathy’s really good at reinforcing that “We practice like we race, and we race like we practice”, and that really helps calm me down because it’s like, “okay, this is what we did in practice”. And that’s why she wants us to work hard and practice, and not to always goof off because it will help come race day.
Geri shares her “day before rituals” that help her feel good on Race Day.
Geri: I usually eat light. I try to get a lot of sleep, especially the night before, and I’m a “List Person”. So I would make lists of what I’m going to bring to race day, what kind of food I’m gonna bring, and what I will need for clothing and I have it all ready the night before.
I remind Geri that I have personally benefited from her various lists of “what to bring”. I’m very grateful for her lists, and her eagerness to share them with the new team members!
Geri: So I find I have mostly everything ready the night before and then you’re always up early the day of the race because you have to travel, and then it’s less running around and worrying that you forgot something.
JK: Do you get nervous at the start of a race?
Geri: Yeah, butterflies are going, and it’s, you know, you just want to do well, you just want to. You get butterflies before every race. It’s not really a sick feeling, it’s excitement. And I just want to do well, I just want to paddle my best. You have to work on your head to get into that mindset I find, and you just have to be positive.
JK: What qualities do you think make Kathy a great coach?
Geri: She’s dedicated. She is an amazing coach. She works with a lot of individuals on the team that are very different and she is able to bring out the best in them. And she pushes you. She’s pushed me beyond whatever I thought I could be, and do, as a paddler. For her to have taken three crews to the last three IBCPC competitions and to have won says a lot. She worked with different crews each time! So she’s kind of the common denominator. Her whole heart and soul and everything is into this dragon boating. I want to give her my best performance. That’s all she wants us to do – just try our best.
JK: How long did it take for you to get good at the stroke? Do you ever truly feel like “I got this!”?
Geri: Oh, I’m still learning. I have an “okay” stroke I would say, sometimes it’s great. Sometimes I think “okay, I’m on”. But then there’s always room for improvement. So it’s a work in progress. It takes years.
JK: What advice would you give to other women who are dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis?
Geri: I knew I needed a support group, I knew I needed something, because nobody in my family had ever had cancer really, and there was nobody in my different groups of friends that seemed to relate to what I was going through. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking out a support group. I had never used a support group before in my life but it was the best decision. That is what KAB has been for me.
JK: And what advice would you give to anyone starting out in dragon boating?
Geri: It would be to just relax, try not to be too nervous or uptight. You will learn the stroke. I know everybody’s probably worried, thinking “I don’t know, I don’t know”, but you Will learn the stroke. Kathy is a phenomenal teacher, and you will feel comfortable, it just takes time, but it’s well worth it to persevere. When I joined the team, like most ladies, I knew nobody, and that in itself is, you know, is kind of intimidating. I doubted myself at first. But I just have to keep at it. And you’ll love it, the friendships and the camaraderie. I never thought I could do some of the stuff I’ve done, and it’s amazing. It has been wonderful for managing my lymphedema. It’s great for your health because we try to exercise and to eat healthy. It’s good all the way around, and that’s a huge benefit.
Geri is so enthusiastic about our team it is contagious. She was the first point of contact for myself and many others when we reached out to Knot A Breast looking for information about joining the team. Encouraging and helpful, she has really made other women welcome when they have started out.
Geri: I just want to add that a lot of my family and friends have come to our races, especially when they are hosted here in Hamilton. They know we’re a team of survivors and they can’t believe how much we laugh and joke, and that we enjoy each other’s company and we just go out and do whatever. And the reality is that breast cancer brought us together. I mean most of us would never know each other. Our team realizes that you gotta have fun, you got to just “let go of it”. I mean it’s always there in the back of your mind, it’s always there, and every year for my check-up I think about it coming back. But you just gotta let go of that. Dragon boating taught me that I can’t do some of the stuff I used to do, but I still can contribute, and have a good time and have fun.
JK: What was your favorite race? What’s your favorite dragon boat moment?
Geri does not hesitate. The International Breast Cancer Paddling Commission (IBCPC) Dragon Boat 500m race held in Florence, Italy in 2018 was her all-time favorite.
Geri: I would say to anybody on the team who’s new, you really need to go to at least one of the IBCPC races. The camaraderie is unbelievable. My first one was Sarasota 2014. That was the year after I joined the team, and you are there with men and women (men also do get breast cancer and some teams have men on them). It is the camaraderie amongst all the team members that makes it a wonderful experience. These events are participatory. They say, “no, it’s not about the win”, but it is, everybody wants to win. When we were in Florence, the New Zealand team was right after us, right from the beginning, and they made it known to us that we were the ones to beat, because we had “won it” twice before.
Geri recalls how nervous she felt before this race.
Geri: We were sitting in the blocks in Florence, and I was on the right at the back of the boat, and the nerves, butterflies, everything, were going and you know everybody is gunning for you. And all I could do is start praying and saying to myself, “Okay, just paddle hard. Do what you know you have to do.”. I just kept talking to myself.
JK: Do you turn “On” or “Off”? Do you go on autopilot, or are you aware and feeling laser-focused?
Geri: Before the race when you’re sitting there and Donna (the steer) is trying to line up the boat with Kathy (on drum), I’m listening but I’m also talking to myself like, “you can do this, you’ve been practicing it, you know what you have to do.”. And also going over the Start. Once Kathy calls: “Ready Ready” we’re down there, hips to the gunnel and ready to pull that first stroke. I then focus only on her and what she’s saying. And that’s all I do, and I never look outside the boat. The team knows that we are in the best hands with Donna on the steer and Kathy in front, and they are gonna do whatever we need to at this point to get us down the lane to the finish line.
Geri explains to me that it’s not all about winning, but that it also IS about winning. That when you know that you’ve trained hard you really want to do your best At That Moment.
Geri: I mean, I’ve always been kind of competitive but not overly competitive. But when you’re in that boat and you’re at the start of any of the races I’ve been in, it’s like, “I want to win, I want to do well.”.
Sometimes it does not go that way. Geri explains to me that there have been races where the boat falls apart, where the front of the boat is doing a different stroke than the middle or the back and it looks like a caterpillar heading across the water.
Geri: There was a point in that race in Florence where it was like, “Oh my gosh it feels like we are falling back here.”. But then we dug down and heard Kathy’s voice but also started hearing the cheering from the spectators on either side of the river where we were paddling. You could hear the cheers growing… ”Go Knot A Breast, Go Knot A Breast!” and it was just like: “Yeah, Come On, Let’s Do It”! And then, all of a sudden, we felt that little bit of a surge. It was like Magic. And then us women here in the “Back Six” , we always chat a little bit to ourselves, we are all yelling, “Let’s go, Let’s go! Come on, Let’s Go!”. It is at that point where you are really digging deep and you feel like you’re there for each other. Whether we win, or whether we lose. Whether we come in first or 10th, we are there for each other. But you know, we all want to try and do it for Kathy. And then when we crossed that line, everybody on the boat was crying, we were all crying.
I now have tears streaming down my face hearing the emotion of her story of that day. They did come in first again that day! And what a memorable race to have been a part of, in Florence, Italy no less!
Geri: It’s a wonderful feeling. This feeling that I am doing something that I never, ever, thought I could do after having breast cancer. It’s not the death sentence I first thought it would be. I don’t want to say “death sentence”, but you know what I mean. I can do stuff, I can contribute. I’ve come leaps and bounds from where I was. And it’s all because of this team. You do know what I mean, don’t you?
Geri, I do know what you mean. I Definitely know what you mean. But I also see something that would never occur to Geri Schweinbenz, and that is just how lucky our team really is to have her as well.🍀 ❤️🐲