Dragon boating strengthens bonds among Vermont cancer survivors

Local News

The pandemic prevented local cancer survivors and their supporters from participating in the sport they love over the past year. But they finally returned to Lake Champlain Wednesday evening for a dragon boating practice.

In China, dragon boating is so popular it’s honored with a national holiday. The members of Dragonheart Vermont use the sport as a means to bond with one another.

They shoved off for their first practice together on the water since September 2019. Many of them shared hugs — and even a few tears — beforehand.

“These people are like family, and they’re the best people,” Dragonheart Vermont member Cathy Buck said. “(They’re) interested in lots of things. And they’re people I never would have met without dragon boating.”

Some of Dragonheart Vermont’s ten different boating teams are national, or even world, champions. Other teams are recreational in nature.

“I used to row crew in college — eight people versus 20? This a much greater challenge,” recreational boat coach Ben Luna said. “You’ve got 20 paddlers with 20 paddles, one coach, one drummer, trying to stay in sync — that’s why we start practicing now!”

However, it’s considered very bad luck to practice, or race, in a dragon boat that hasn’t been properly awakened. It’s done in a ritual that includes a ceremonial dragon’s head.

“When we awaken the dragon, we paint fire into their eyes, and we usually use red,” coach Lizzie Alton said. “So, there’ll be a red pupil in the black eye, and then they are awake for the whole season and can paddle with us.”

Dragonheart Vermont was founded in 2004 as a breast cancer survivor team. That’s still an important element, of the organization, but there’s also more to it than that.

“We have a couple of boats of breast cancer survivors, and we also have lots of different age groups,” Buck said. “We are putting together a veterans’ boat — so, if any of that sounds good, please come down.”

Dragonheart Vermont is also planning for the early August return of the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival, which raises money for local cancer survivors.

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