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During the 2020-21 season, the world COVID-19 pandemic suspended dragon boating, and many of Knot A Breast’s fund-raising activities. We are very grateful to KAB team member and amateur artist, Norma Moores, who turned to art as an alternative activity and then turned her artwork into an opportunity to raise funds for our team. 

Norma created the original watercolour painting “Knot A Breast: Finish!” based on a race at the Canadian National Dragon Boat Championships in Regina SK in 2019. It captures the front of two dragon boats as they near the end of the race. It depicts the surge of the boats as the drummer and coach, Kathy Levy, calls for power from the 20 paddlers to finish the race. The drummer has the best view of the team’s position in the race; while all other paddlers ‘focus in the boat’. Norma claims that she chose this composition because she did not want to paint 44 arms!

Print of “Knot A Breast: Finish!”


The painting was printed at Centre3 (https://centre3.com/) in their fine art digital studio in Hamilton on Espon 100% cotton cold press paper. The prints were matted and framed at Corby Custom Framing (https://www.corbyframing.ca/) in Carlisle. 

Twenty-eight prints were sold to Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor, Lively Dragon, Welland Warlocks, and Sisters in Sync dragon boat team members along with some to family and friends. $833.54 was donated to Knot A Breast through this fund-raiser including $140 from Milka Vujnovic without a purchase.

KAB member Milka Vujnovic and Don Corby picking up the prints after framing from Corby Custom Framing


The artist, Norma Moores, has been dragon boating since 2011 and joined KAB in 2018. She participated in the 2019 Canadian National Dragon Boat Championships, Regina SK, where Knot A Breast won gold in the Breast Cancer Survivor Category. Norma started watercolour painting in her teens in Nova Scotia, then took courses at the Dundas Valley School of Art before developing a career in engineering and raising a family. In 2020 she returned to painting, and thoroughly enjoys learning from each unique painting she creates.

Norma would like to acknowledge the support of the following individuals:

  • Jo-Anne Rogerson for appreciating the artwork and encouraging Norma to make her first ever artists prints.
  • Milka Vujnovic for moving ahead with the framing part of the fundraiser, delivery, pick-up, sorting and distribution.
  • Alex at Centre3 who ensured that the artist prints were top quality.
  • Don at Corby Custom Framing who was pleasant, efficient and generous in framing the prints.
  • Don Wood for taking the original picture that captured this moment.

And to those who bought a print, thank-you for supporting Knot A Breast. We hope you feel the power of “Team” every time you look at it!

KAB members Rebecca Walker (left) and Carrie Brooks-Joiner (right) receiving their prints with artist, Norma Moores (middle)

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. 



Our Interview:

Geri being interviewed on my porch, Sunday Morning in June, 2021.


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!

Geri enjoying her Cracked Canoe
with Leslie Williams and Lynn Youngman, 2019.


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.

KAB poses at City Hall, 2018. Geri is second from far right (in the N).


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! 

Lynda Benison and Geri modeling new shirts, 2018


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. 

Geri and Shida Asmaeil, GWN 2015


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.

Race Day 2017 with, from left, Aleta Thompson, Kathy Martin and Tracy McInnis. (Geri is second from right).


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. 

KAB practice, 2019.


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.

Knot A Breast in Sarasota, 2014.


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’s favourite dragon boat moment.


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.🍀 ❤️🐲

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?

By Norma Moores and Carrie Brooks-Joiner, KAB members

The Knot A Breast breast cancer survivor dragon boat team was formed in 1998. The team is now 23 years old and has been represented by a logo of a cute dragon head with a pink ribbon around its neck and Knot A Breast spelled out below it in a rope-like font. This logo was created by Hamilton artist, Conrad Furey, married to coach Kathy Levy’s cousin.

Knot A Breast’s original logo by Conrad Furey

Conrad was born in Newfoundland in 1954 and settled in Hamilton in 1974. He passed away from colon cancer in 2008. Conrad was very fond of Knot A Breast. One of his paintings depicts a dragon boat team and hangs on the ground floor in the Medical Arts Building at 1 Young Street, Hamilton. He created the original logo after talking to the entire original team.

Example of Conrad Furey’s art, Medical Arts Building, 1 Young Street, Hamilton

Story 6 of 6

By Marla Iyer and Kristen Winkworth, KAB Members

I remember it was Sunday at the 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival in Florence, Italy. And it was stinking hot. The port-a-potties were marginally better than they had been the day before. I won’t go into detail… you get the picture.

Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team had two races on the last day of the Festival at which 128 teams with over 3,000 people from 28 countries participated. Somehow, by the skin of our teeth, we managed to nose ahead and win this international participatory event!!

Kristen and I were flying home early Monday morning so we had already checked out of the hotel and had brought all our luggage with us to the venue. KAB member, Anna Candelori, had organized a celebratory dinner (win or lose, we raced our best) for after the races. There was no time to taxi back to the hotel so we all piled into the rented bus and drove into downtown Florence for dinner. We were famished. Ristorante Pizzeria was very quaint (as they all are in Italy!). We had a room to ourselves in the basement. I remember it was blessedly air conditioned… and I don’t even like air conditioning! But it was hot. And we had raced all day.  We were still wearing our race clothes. Again, you get the picture.

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. 

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.”

Paddlechica

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.

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.