It’s early on a Saturday morning on the east bank of White Rock Lake. The day is already warming up and so are the breast cancer survivors circled up around their coach. The women are Dallas United Pink, a dragon boat paddle team that trains on White Rock Lake.

Dragon boat racing originated in southern China more than 2,000 years ago, around the same time the Greeks were establishing athletic competitions in Olympia, according to the International Dragon Boat Federation. Since Chinese tradition describes dragons as the rulers of the waters on Earth, the boats hold ceremonial and religious significance in their homeland.

The races consist of up to 20 individuals in each boat. The paddlers sit in nine rows of two while a drummer faces them and keeps the rhythm on a traditional drum. The booming beat tells the paddlers how fast to paddle while another teammate works the tiller at the back of the boat, keeping the vessel on its course.

Dallas United Pink began in 2015 and consists of women who have been treating breast cancer for just a few months and others who have been battling for 20 years. Participants find it a refreshing alternative to the usual support groups or 5k races.

“I tried peer support groups and got tired of talking about the stages,” says Marye Thomas, who has been on the team for a little more than a year. “I am not an outside person, but these women are full of life and accept you where you are.”

In 1996 Dr. Don McKenzie introduced dragon boating as a part of the recovery program after surgery for breast cancer patients. The survivors benefitted from the exercise, which left them happier and healthier while reducing lymphedema, the painful swelling that often accompanies cancer treatment.

Many of the racers compete and train while undergoing treatment, staying healthy and getting their mind off surgery and radiation. Reem Samra joined the team this summer after meeting a paddler at a breast cancer retreat. “We share the experience in a positive manner, and it’s great to see women that have been through so much. They are warriors.”

Jovin Lim has coached the team for two years and competes in dragon boat races for Dallas United Crew’s Delite team, which is the club’s premier competitive dragon boat squad. He used to paddle with the Singapore military but is still wowed by the women he coaches. “It is my privilege to coach them,” he says. “It helps put perspective on life. What you think are problems are not really problems.”

In July the women will travel to Florence, Italy, to compete in the International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Festival. The two-time Women’s Division Champions of the DFW Dragon Boat Kite and Lantern Festival will take its crew to paddle with 129 teams from 17 countries in the Arno river. Team members have been training intensely for the festival, eager to do their best. But they haven’t forgotten their deeper goal.

Vicki Jackson, a paddler who became a breast health nurse after her diagnosis, loves being on the water with her team.

“They see there is a life after cancer. There are a lot of great days ahead.”

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