Press-Telegram: Dragons Prepare for Florida

15th Oct 2014

Pink Dragons team of breast cancer survivors prepare in Long Beach for dragon boat festival in Florida


By Courtney Tompkins,



LONG BEACH >> The sun was beginning to dip down on the horizon as a team of women, armed with paddles and their pink gear, pushed an 800-pound dragon boat into the water and hopped in.

They paddled in unison while a teammate sat at the front of the boat, calling out strokes and commanding more power as they glided through the bay at Mothers Beach.

It was clear this was not their first time on the water. But it would be one of their last times practicing together before the Los Angeles Pink Dragons boarded a plane and flew across the country to compete in theInternational Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Festival, a tournament held every four years in different cities across the globe.

The tournament, held Oct. 24-26 in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, will make its debut in the U.S. for the first time next weekend when more than 100 teams travel to Sarasota, Fla., to race in the waters off the Gulf Coast.

It is also the first time the Los Angeles Pink Dragons, all breast cancer survivors, will travel to the festival and compete as a team.

The Pink Dragons, formed in 2003, are California’s first breast cancer survivor dragon boat team. Although the team practices in Long Beach, the women hail from cities across the Southland, including Corona Del Mar, Huntington Beach and Santa Monica. Since January, team members have ramped up their training and hired a coach, Crystal Chen, to prepare for the competition, in which the team will take 20 paddlers.

One of the team’s founders and a current paddler, TK Kimura, 67, said the whole premise of this is to inspire other survivors, to get out and exercise and to show them there’s life after breast cancer.

All of the team members, ranging in age from 40 to 80, have battled cancer, some as recently as last year. Some are still undergoing treatment.

Kimura was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation when she helped form the team 11 years ago.

“It’s awakened me to a whole new lifestyle … and opened doors for all the ladies,” Kimura said. “No longer are we just a support team, we’re competitors. Some of these ladies have never been in competitive sports before so it’s tough, but we’re up for the challenge.”

It is only in the past 35 years that dragon boating has emerged as a sport worldwide, but its origins, rooted in Chinese culture, date back to more than 2,000 years ago when the boats were used in religious ceremonies as a way to appease the rain gods.

The first breast cancer survivor dragon boat team was formed in 1996 by Dr. Don McKenzie, just two years before his research was published about the sport’s benefits to breast cancer survivors in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Aside from the physical benefits, said Pink Dragon Shirley Horn, the camaraderie the women share with one another is incomparable.

“Breast cancer is a life-changing experience and everybody on this boat has shared that, so it’s a lot easier to get out and be together and just go for it,” she said, as her eyes began to tear up. “It’s about making every moment better. Every moment is precious when you’ve been through something like this.”

In the span of two decades, the number of breast-cancer survivor dragon boat teams has grown tremendously, with more than 120 teams hailing from more than 60 countries across the globe.

Horn, 61, joined the team in April 2012, just two months after recovering from a bilateral mastectomy she had had after her second breast cancer diagnosis. Prior to that, she had celebrated 12 years cancer-free after her first diagnosis at 46 years old in 1999. “I got on the boat the first time and thought ‘I’m totally hooked on this. I’m not going back. This is what I want to do,’” Horn said.

“Paddling with Pink Dragons has changed my life even more than breast cancer did,” Horn said. “One knocks you on your butt, and then the opposite side of the coin is, ‘Wow, what an incredible group of women. What an incredible sport.’ It’s changed me in so many ways.”

Long Beach native Sharon Patterson, 61, is the team’s lead stroke, meaning she sits on bench one and sets the pace for the rest of the paddlers. She joined the team five years ago, in 2009, after Kimura approached her while she was walking near Mothers Beach.

She said that although she wasn’t much of a “support group kind of gal,” she instantly loved it.

“It was more of a love of the water, the boat and the sport before I really got into the camaraderie with the girls; that came for me as time went by. But now, you can’t even explain the sisterhood we have.”

The Pink Dragons are funded mostly through donations, yard sales, baking cookies or whatever they can do, joked Patterson. This year, the team received its biggest donation to date, in the amount of $5,000 from Harbor Chevrolet.

Over the course of the team’s 11 years, they have lost eight paddlers to breast cancer or other metastasized forms, two of them in 2013 alone.

Most recently, the team’s captain was diagnosed with advanced melanoma. After inspiring and encouraging the women to compete in the upcoming tournament, she will not be joining them in Florida as she has been moved to hospice care.

The captain’s name is being withheld at the request of the team.

“We’re all very, very sad about our captain,” Horn said. “She’s the most strongest, most inspiring person we have, so when we go to Sarasota next week, we’re going to be paddling our hearts out for her.”

The team practices twice weekly at Mothers Beach. The Pink Dragons are always accepting guest paddlers, so those who aren’t sure the sport is for them are invited to come try it out.

“It’s so uplifting and inspiring, yet the reason we’re all together is not a happy thing,” Horn said. “This is a club we don’t want anybody to have to join, but when they do, we welcome them with open arms.”

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