Welcome Speech for the Festival Opening, 14th April 2023
Tena koutou , tena koutou, Tena koutou Katoa.
Ko Meri Gibson Taku ingoa,
ko kaiwhakahaere International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission,
ko kaiwhakahaere Aotearoa Wahine Toa Ora Trust,
Ko Aoraki te Maunga, ko Waimakariri te awa, no Otautahi ahau, ki uta ki tai.
No reira, kia ora, huihui mai tatou
Thank you, Richard, for the introduction. I am Meri Gibson, the President of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission, and the Chair of Aotearoa Wahine Toa Ora Trust, but most importantly I am a paddler with Abreast of Life Dragon Boat team from Otautahi, Christchurch.
Welcome, welcome, welcome, to all of you.
Welcome paddlers and supporters from around the globe to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission 2023 Participatory Dragon Boat festival.
Christopher Luxon, Leader of the Opposition of New Zealand.
Louise Upston Member of the New Zealand Parliament and member for Taupō
And their National party colleagues.
Susan O Reagan, Mayor Waipa
Liz Stolwyk, Deputy Mayor Waipa, and CEO Mighty River Domain,
Kemy Monahan, USA Deputy Chief de Mission.
My dragon boat colleagues:
Claudio Schermi European Dragon Boat Federation President and IDBF 4th Vice President
Belinda Chung IDBF Marketing Director
Noel Anderton President Oceania Dragon Boat Federation
Steve Monk Chair New Zealand Dragon Boat Association
With Dragon boat representation like this it will come as no surprise to you that New Zealand has the highest number of breast cancer paddler teams across the globe, a fact I’m very proud of, not because we may have a high incidence of breast cancer, but because we are proactive, we are water people and we just get on with life in the typical kiwi way.
When I look out at you all, my heart is full, it is exploding with pride and happiness to finally be here in this incredibly special place in Aotearoa, New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud.
When I attended my first Breast Cancer Survivor dragon boat festival in Caloundra, Australia in 2007 and despite only having been in the sport for 6 months, I knew at once that I wanted to bring a festival to New Zealand.
I wanted to bid in 2015, for the 2018 festival, but realising I did not have the necessary support I withdrew that application. By 2019 I knew what was needed (or so I thought) to host a festival in 2022. The rest is history and here we are in 2023 with an event that should have taken place in 2022.
Ever since it was announced that New Zealand had won the bid, we started making plans for this outstanding event by establishing Aotearoa Wahine Toa Ora Trust translated into English it is the New Zealand Strong Warrior Women Trust.
The trustees entrusted me to put together a festival organising committee, and I could think of no better person to lead that than Deb Stevenson who I had worked with over several years in organising New Zealand Dragon Boat Association national championships. Deb is a member of Busting with Life, the first breast-cancer dragon boat team formed in New Zealand in 1998. Through Deb and our cohort, we have an amazing group of volunteers who have given much more than a week of their lives. Moving boats across the islands and doing everything asked of them.
Through this process I have worn two hats, as President of the IBCPC and as Chair of AWTO. I cannot express strongly enough what an honour and a privilege it has been to be a part of this extraordinary journey dedicating ourselves to the passion and spirit to make this festival a reality.
We started planning with a release date to open registrations on July 1st, 2020, and then the world stopped as Covid hit. Boldly, despite that we continued to open registrations, but regrettably had to postpone the event for one year from 2022 to 2023 – in hindsight that has been one of the best decisions we have made.
It has by no means been easy as we have navigated through Covid, putting in place strong cancellation policies. We have no doubt that the motivation of coming out of Covid has spurred us on, as we have endeavoured to put together a festival that will create beautiful memories for all of you.
I am so excited to see you all here. I cannot believe that this has finally come to be a reality. I want to thank the huge effort of the planning that has gone into this week by the festival organising committee.
What can we say about the breast cancer paddling experience, it has changed our lives, it has given us new friendships, and a strength of spirit in our souls, it has shown our families that we can do, what we want to do, it has made athletes out of us, it has taught us to live life to the fullest.
We know that this festival will be incredible credit to IBCPC which had its first festival in 2010, 15 years after those 24 brave women that paddled with Dr Don McKenzie in 1995 first stepped into a dragon boat. IBCPC now sits in 37 countries across six continents, representing approximately 15,000 breast cancer dragon boat paddlers globally. This festival will host the biggest contingent of women “athletes” in the world this year. While some politicians may boast of the women’s rugby or cricket, and yes, they may have bigger audiences and followers, we are genuinely the biggest group of women “athletes” of any event.
I know that this will be an amazing festival as we rekindle old friendships, we hug, we laugh, we cry, we sing, we dance, but most of all, we paddle and we show our friends, family, and supporters what an incredible life we can have post a diagnosis of breast cancer. Living this has been a privilege and a great honour.
On behalf of everyone I want to say thank you to the fantastic support of the Waipa District Council, through to everybody else that has been involved. We have a group of amazing organisers, volunteers, officials, ambassadors, and suppliers and through their support this will be an incredible event from which new memories will be made, which we will cherish for the rest of our lives as we join to paddle in these beautiful surroundings.
I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for committing yourselves to continue to practice through Covid, for committing to raise funds to attend this event. I know it is an expensive adventure to travel anywhere in the world right now.
We are deeply moved and proud that so many of you have chosen to come here to our beautiful New Zealand to join us during this week to celebrate this incredibly special life together.
I welcome you and hope you enjoy a fabulous week at Lake Karapiro in the Mighty Waikato.
Wishing you much love and laughter over this incredible time of celebrations.