ADDISON COUNTY/HONG KONG — When the crew at Dragonheart Vermont arrived in Hong Kong for the International Dragon Boat Federation’s Club Crew World Championships, the team of breast cancer survivors was overwhelmed.
Under a sky filled with ultra modern skyscrapers, the grueling water conditions were unlike anything the team had ever encountered. Adding to the team’s apprehension, a typhoon slammed the southern Chinese territory the weekend before the races.
But breast cancer survivors like Waltham’s Mary Ann Castimore, Ferrisburgh’s Carol Bowles and Middlebury’s Elaine Coon were used to overcoming adversity, and the Dragonheart team paddled on to win a world championship in the 200 meter breast cancer division, which was no easy task considering the circumstances.
The team got in the Chinese waters for the first time early in the week of July 4 to practice.
“We went in with the attitude that Lake Champlain is rough, and if we can handle Lake Champlain we can handle anything,” said Bowles. “But Victoria Harbor took us by surprise.”
The undercurrents in the ancient trading harbor were extremely strong. The waves rolled around like a whirlpool. The summer Chinese air was thick. The Asian landscape was unfamiliar. And Dragonheart was competing in the biggest competition in the world.
“There’s so much to process and because of the adrenalin you’re just shaking,” recalled Castamore. “This is the Olympics of dragon boating.”
To make matters worse, the team had never paddled in saltwater before.
“Salt water is much denser than fresh water, and it feels totally different,” said Bowles. “It feels like paddling in concrete.”
Finding their rhythm, among 4,000 paddlers from 180 teams representing 66 different countries in the dense water of Victoria Harbor, was no small feat for the Vermont paddlers accustomed to the solitude of Lake Champlain’s freshwater.
But after a couple practice days, the team began to relax. When it was time to compete, the Vermonters were ready.
Competing in the 200-meter and 500-meter breast cancer races, the team’s sites were on gold. The only thing that stood between them and the championship was two of the best teams in the world.
“One of them was the U.S. National Champs from Wisconsin,” said Castimore. “The other team was the Australians,” the former reigning champs from Brisbane, which go by the name Missabittatitti.
Heading into the races, the Dragonheart team had every reason to be confident. The paddlers were coming off their best season ever, having won the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival in Burlington last year, which Dragonheart hosts, and performing well at top North American tournaments. The Vermonters’ best performance last year is what earned them a spot in the breast cancer survivor division and the women’s senior B division at the world championship, and they weren’t about to let the opportunity go to waste.
When it was time for the 200-meter race on Friday, July 6, Dragonheart was stretched thin. The team had raced in six heats that day: three in the breast cancer survivor division and three in the senior division. The times of the three races were lumped together at the end of the competition, and the top cumulative score won.
With their minds and bodies in gear, the Dragonheart team sped through the day to win the breast cancer division, beating Missabittatitti by just two seconds.
“We were very overwhelmed and extremely happy,” said Castimore. “We didn't realize the potential that we had. And we’ve got some very talented and strong people on our team.”
After the six-heat day, the Dragonheart racers decided to pull out of the senior division to focus on their bread and butter: the breast cancer division. Dragonheart then picked up a silver medal for the 500-meter race on July 8, losing to Missabittatitti by just 1.5 seconds.
“It was a huge totally international event and to be able to put on a showing like that was pretty awesome,” said Bowles.
Such a performance also takes dedication. The Dragonheart team has come a long way over the past several years.
“We are a much better team,” said Castimore.
“Practice, practice, practice,” said Bowles. “We have placed a real emphasis on training in the off season.”
Although the Dragonheart team is competitive on the water, they enjoy the time they have at these world events with other breast cancer survivors who are living healthy lives around the world.
“In the breast cancer survivor competition, there’s an amazing level of camaraderie,” said Bowles.
“As soon as the race is over we look at the other team and say great race, whether we win or lose,” said Mary Ann.
“That’s true of all the breast cancer races we’ve done,” chimed Bowles. “But that’s not true of all of the premier events. When we did the 200 meter in the women’s senior B races, we were wishing other teams good race, and they said, ‘What do you mean good race? We’re competing against you.’ They just didn’t get it.”
While the Dragonheart competitors are glad to win a world championship, they say they don’t dragon boat for medals or glory.
“We dragon boat because we love the sport,” said Castimore. “It’s also the camaraderie you have with your team and the people and the other breast cancer survivors you meet along the way. We’re all in the same boat.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].