Why We Paddle

Carnations1Why Dragon boat? When Campbell River’s Race the River dragon boat regatta takes place in late June a question often asked is: why dragon boat, and how did a sport that originated in south-central China over 2500 years ago become the fastest growing water sport worldwide?

Well, the Vancouver medical community had a lot to do with it.  In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie, a professor and exercise physiologist in UBC’s Department of Sports Medicine wanted to challenge the prevailing medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema, a debilitating and chronic side effect of treatment. He needed to find a suitable sport to test his theory. Even though it was still a niche sport at the time, he thought dragon-boat paddling might be ideal. The Chinese delegation had sent six dragon boats to Vancouver’s Expo 86 for the Hong Kong Day celebrations held on Central False Creek. The Chinese delegation donated the boats to Vancouver and these were used later that summer for the first dragon-boat races held in Canada.

A dragon-boat race is a strenuous 500-metre sprint; nevertheless, Dr McKenzie thought it might be the right sport for survivors to use. He took twenty-four volunteers and he trained them first in the gym and then he taught them how to paddle a dragon boat. After three months out on the water none of the volunteers had lymphedema. The women who took part in the trial found they were fitter, healthier and happier. They loved the camaraderie and support of their fellow paddlers and found they had regained control of their lives. Furthermore, they realized dragon boat paddling could become a means to raise breast cancer awareness and help other survivors lead normal lives.

Dr. McKenzie’s original group of patients formed Abreast In A Boat, the first breast cancer survivor team in Canada. The word soon spread. In 2005, to celebrate their 10th anniversary, Abreast In A Boat hosted the International Breast Cancer Survivor Dragonboat Festival, which was attended by two thousand breast cancer survivors from all over the world. Today there are countless teams made up of men and women recovering from all types of cancer.

Both Campbell River Dragonboat teams actively support cancer awareness: River Spirit (founded as a breast cancer team) is open to all women paddlers. BraveHearts is a mixed team (founded for survivors of all types of cancer).