Story 5 of 6

By Jacqueline Draper, KAB Supporter

“As we begin to pry ourselves loose from old self-concepts, we find that our new emerging self may enjoy all sorts of bizarre adventures.”

Julie Cameron

Standing upon the banks of the Arno River, watching the kaleidoscope of paddlers in colourful team shirts slicing the water in tandem to the dragon boat drums, are the spectators of this world event. There are 128 Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Teams with over 3000 participants from 28 countries in the 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival, Florence, Italy. These teams represent countries from around the world with athletes who have rigorously trained to achieve a spot on the majestic dragon boat. All the toned, muscular arms paddle in synchronization as they coalesce for a global cause while competing under a flag that distinguishes their country. The fierce determination of the athletes and pulsating excitement of the competition encompasses the banks of the Arno River adorned with hundreds of team tents that comprise the athletes’ village in Cascine Park.

The City of Florence is filled with tourists, team supporters, merchants, and local citizens who have lined the streets to honour the dragon boat participants. The colourful team tents are filled with athletes who globally represent breast cancer survivors; each participant has their own personal story. Areas of Florence are adorned in pink in honour of these survivors and a celebratory Pink Parade of Nations kicks off the event along the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The Arno River is filled with dragon boats representing the global nature of breast cancer honouring all those lost to the disease and all who have survived. It is Sunday, July 8th, 2018, second race day of the IBCPC Festival. Upon the banks of the Arno River are the supportive spectators. I am in the midst of this exuberant crowd and it is from this vantage point and narrative view that I provide my perspective of watching the final races on this memorable day. 

This narration is from the standpoint of a spectator. It represents my conceptualization of the participatory races in Florence with tunnel vision focused on the Knot A Breast (KAB) team. Specifically, my childhood and lifelong best friend is on this team. It is also my mother who predominates this narration. She was a competitive athlete before a tragic car accident changed the course of her life. She was one of the most courageous women I have ever known and had a hearty serving of challenges throughout her life to demonstrate it. My mother passed away from breast cancer when I was thirty-one years old after an aggressive battle, yet it was her strength and fierce determination that is most memorable.  

When my husband and I arrived in Florence for the final race day, we were in awe of the undulating landscape filled with vibrant dragon boat teams, a sea of pink dotting the Arno River. We were on a mission to find our friends. This challenge felt like finding Waldo in the thick crowd of spectators, yet we spotted them photographing Round 3, Race 25 and the Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team racing in Lane 3, their second last race of the festival. As a spectator, this race made my heart pound with the intensity of the final. It included New Zealand, two USA teams, Italy, and Canada’s Knot-A-Breast team who we came to support. We watched the Canadian dragon boat team finish in third place. There was one final race to be run at the 2018 IBCPC Festival; the excitement was palpable and sizzling energy rippled through the crowds on the riverbank.

Before the final race, our friends informed us that KAB now needed to regroup, reframe, refocus, and reinvent themselves through visualization and strict tutelage under the powerful and dynamic Coach Kathy Levy.  I have been told many stories of their exemplary coach, small in stature, yet mighty in presence with a commanding voice and energy that propelled her team to this world event. We did our own visualization that afternoon upon the grassy banks of the Arno River. We mingled with other Knot A Breast spectators, primarily family members and friends of the team.

The team was sheltered away getting pumped up for the final race. We envisioned what ‘getting pumped up by Coach Kathy’ entailed and shared stories about this while we also refueled with water, coffee, and a light snack. Collectively from all the training stories we heard, combined with the professionally respected Coach Kathy, we surmised the strategy would be fine-tuned, balanced, tough, and most of all encouraging. And in fact, it was visualization that helped the team members to reinvent themselves for that final race, along with strategic changes implemented by a stellar coach.

I began this spectator’s narration with a quote from Julie Cameron, “when we pry ourselves loose from old self concepts, we find that our new emerging self may enjoy all sorts of bizarre adventures.” The athletes in this festival, dotting the Arno River in the dragon boats, and watching from under the white-canopied team tents, had pried themselves away from any negative connotations of breast cancer. They envisioned themselves with a different self-image, shredding the negative self-connotations as they transformed into professional athletes.

It is about to begin, the final race with Canada’s Knot A Breast once again in Lane 3. They are competing with four other world teams, two from USA, New Zealand, and Italy’s Florence team. One side of the riverbank is filled with a cornucopia of supporters, while the opposite side is swarmed with participants forming a pink blanket nestled around the Arno River. The spectators are charged with raw emotion. I stand beside my husband, nestled between him and my friend’s son. John squeezes my hand and I observe the emotion in his eyes as the horn blows to begin the race. Everything changes, time morphs and seems to move slowly as the dragon boats blast out of the start-gate. Seconds seem like minutes, or more, when presto, in Lane 3 the KAB boat pushes ahead. A jolt of energy blasts through my body as the crowd roars with excitement. Like a gazelle, I leap over the bodies sitting alongside the river, as I keep my eyes focused on Lane 3, screaming while watching muscled arms pulling the boat further ahead. They are going to win. They are going to win. The nose of the KAB boat is pushing further ahead with a solid lead as it crosses the finish line. I am halfway up the riverbank and want to jump in that boat and hug my dearest and best friend. I realize then that I am far away from where we were standing, so I leap back, pushing through the applauding bodies who block my way.

Hugging, laughing, crying, rejoicing with our family and friends, we form a conglomerate glued together by enormous pride and joy. My friend’s son tells me that watching me leap along the riverbank reminded him of his mother’s energy on steroids! And then the Knot A Breast boat moves towards us as they raise their paddles in glorious victory and point to their supporters, specifically calling out our names. My husband had made an anonymous donation to the team, choosing to bring opportunity and recognition to the team members. Yet at that moment, my friend pointed us out and then placed her hands over her heart while she leaned towards her teammates. It was apparent that she was telling them of his contribution. This act humbled John who stood speechless with tears streaming down his face. Enormous emotions gripped my heart overwhelming me to the point of speechlessness that, for anyone who knows me, is a rare occurrence! And then my friend called out my mother’s name as she pounded her heart over and over again! In that action, I do not think I have ever felt such numb, tingling, raw emotion. Two years later, reflecting upon my experience of the IBCPC Festival in Florence, I am still aware of the magnitude of this event. I felt my mother’s presence in that final, victorious race, and in the grand finale of the flower ceremony. I know she was with me. I also felt tidal waves of emotions and respect for the Knot A Breast team members, supporters, and Coach Kathy.