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Chinese Dragon Sisters follow their dream during Coronavirus Quarantine

Report by IBCPC China Rep Beirong (Bei) Xiong March 21, 2020

China’s women, men and children have experienced a most unusual 2020 Chinese New Year and the longest homestay quarantine in history, all in aid of containing the COVID-19 virus. It has been over 9 weeks now since communities across the country locked down.

We checked in with members of the newly minted breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams in Shanghai and Beijing to see how they are coping. Despite the difficult and unusual challenges they face, these paddlers are making the most of their situation. 

Beijing Dragon Sisters

Wan Wan is used to seeing her gramma climb on the living room couch, barely noticing anymore as she pulls away the cushions before settling into her ready, ready position. Zhu Zhu Wang has been doing this for weeks now, ever since the government ordered China’s population to remain in their homes to help contain the COVID-19 virus outbreak discovered earlier in Wuhan. 

Zhu Zhu has good reason for this daily ritual. She’s chasing her dream. “Paddling on the couch is the closest way to simulate my seat in our dragon boat,” she says. “I just can’t feel the catch.”  

We caught up with the captain of the Beijing Dragon Sisters on day 55 of her quarantine – day 40 of her in-home exercise program to maintain her readiness to paddle. She says working out also keeps her spirits up.

“I was going crazy, gaining weight and losing my conditioning,” says Zhu Zhu, who founded the team last year as part of IBCPC’s Awaken the Dragon Sister program to bring dragon boat lifestyle to breast cancer survivors in mainland China. Unable to go out to her local gym, or even to the neighborhood park, Zhu Zhu has made the most of her living room to maintain her daily fitness routine. Some team members work out in their bedrooms. 

“I feel so good afterwards,” smiles Zhu Zhu at the end of her hour-long routine. “I’m tired, I’m relaxed, and I’m full of hope.”

Some paddlers have been working out every single day since their quarantine began, even since Chinese New Year. “They are my heroes,” says Zhu Zhu.

 ZhuZhu and the other 33 members of her team are following an exercise plan designed for them by IBCPC China representative Beirong Xiong.

Paddlers post their exercise schedule daily to the team WeChat group. “I feel so encouraged to see my sisters working out, keeping their energy and spirits high through this difficult time,” beams Beirong from her home in Ottawa, Canada. 

“These women are amazing. They all share the same goal, to paddle together in New Zealand – to be the first mainland Chinese survivor team to paddle in an IBCPC quadrennial dragon boat festival.”

Zhu Zhu’s first breast cancer diagnosis in 2006 was followed by a second diagnosis eight years later. Then, while coping with a recurrence in early 2019 she continued on as team captain, determined to practice on water during her treatment. “It’s very important for me to have a dream,” she told Beirong. “My life has taken on new meaning since organizing our team. I had never exercised before. When we paddled together for the first time, at the Tong Zhou Canal canoe club, it was like we had rejoined the human race – as equals, as healthy women back in charge of our lives.”

 “I am so proud of myself,” smiles Jiu Hong Zhang as she finishes her daily ‘’couch workout” in her 10th floor apartment in Beijing’s Dongcheng District. “I have a small apartment where I do my workouts in a five square meter area. I can do my core workout on the bed.”

Jiu Hong has continued her 40-minute morning workouts now for 40 days straight since January 27th. She says some Beijing Dragon Sisters work out twice a day.
 “Exercise has become a very important part of my life. After working out I have such a good spirit and my body is full of energy. Sometimes I get lazy but when I see what other Sisters have done, I feel motivated to exercise. I tell myself don’t give up.” 

“My goal is to lose weight. I work out 10 minutes each morning and 30 minutes at night. I’m so glad to see muscle on my arms! Just think of the weight people are gaining cooped up in their homes for so many days on end! I am not gaining any weight. My spirit is good and I am not depressed.”

Shanghai Dragon Sisters

 Beirong praises Di Na Zhou for her hard work organizing the Shanghai Dragon Sisters, stepping into the captain’s role to lead her paddlers in regular workouts at a fitness centre. Now, during the quarantine, the thirty-two women share their workout results with each other every two weeks on their team WeChat group. 

Di Na, who embraced yoga after her diagnosis in 2014, welcomed the chance to add full-body workouts to her recovery plan. 

“A group of us met in Jing An Park one Sunday last May to meet Beirong, a breast cancer survivor whose story many of us had followed on WeChat. She invited each of us to share our story with the group before leading us to a nearby pond to try the paddle stroke. I loved it the minute I dipped my paddle in the water!”
“Although coronavirus has stopped our weekly group training, it cannot stop our determination to be in good shape. We are looking forward to going out again, and meeting our dragon sisters to train together. This day will come.”

On the 8th floor of her mother’s high rise building in Chengdu city, Xin Mei is now up to 20 side squats in her daily routine. Her lockdown began here while visiting her mum for New Year’s. As she rises from each squat, Mei can see the neighbouring buildings through the living room window. The streets below are eerily void of people and traffic. At the end of her session she taps some numbers onto her phone and hits the send button for all 32 paddlers on the Shanghai Dragon Sister team to see. Xin Mei signed up last December in answer to IBCPC’s call for interested breast cancer survivors to form a dragon boat team. 

“I used to work out by myself in Shanghai. Now, even so far away from home, I can enjoy the support of my teammates. I sweat, and my body feels so relaxed after my workout. I’m full of energy from my top down. I feel very positive. I eat well and I’m sleeping better. I feel happy, really happy!”

In the four-square-meter living room of her suburban Shanghai apartment, novice paddler Ci Ci works out on her TRX, stretching back and forth to strengthen her core, and gradually increasing her upper and lower body strength.

“It’s the perfect solution for a small space and it complements our team training program,” says Ci Ci, who joined the team late last year. Ci Ci augments her workouts by taking the stairs to her 10th floor apartment each day to check the mailbox.

Like so many of her fellow paddlers, Ci Ci says dragon boating has opened the door to a happier, healthier life.

“I was too busy before to really focus on my health,” she says. “It’s so encouraging to be with women who are on the same path, dealing with the same challenges. The support we share among our team is life changing.” 

Back in Beijing, Zhu Zhu is texting her Dragon Sister teammates, encouraging them to stay positive, reminding them that they will be back on the water one day. With the numbers of infected declining at time of writing, that day may be sooner than they think.

Meantime, these Dragon Sisters in Shanghai and Beijing keep working out, eating well and scanning daily news for signs of light at the end of the tunnel. 
“As breast cancer survivors we are used to overcoming adversity in our lives,” says Zhu Zhu. “We are proud to play our part in ending this virus and look forward to paddling again. On behalf of Beijing and Shanghai Dragon Sisters we send our love and best wishes to all our sisters around the world at this very special time. Be strong!” 

Send your comments to the China Dragon Sisters c/o IBCPC Facebook page.