Chinese breast cancer survivors in Toronto Canada made history last summer taking their newly minted Phoenix dragon boat team to the races! The first Chinese BCS dragon boat team in Canada had hit the water.
The paddlers of Phoenix arose from four online fitness groups who had been following coach Beirong Xiong’s fitness training program throughout the pandemic.
“We saw how well Beirong had recovered from her surgery and treatment through dragon boat training,” says team captain Betty Song. “We thought, why not form our own team and take our training to the water!”
Betty says team members took added inspiration from the courage and determination survivors in Shanghai and Beijing displayed forming their dragon boat teams in 2019 and maintaining their training uninterrupted through China’s long Covid-19 lockdown.
Unable to train together in person group members exercised daily at home, checking in with the whole group at the end of each day. Betty led them together in a Tuesday Zoom strength training workout. “We haven’t missed a week since November 2020,” says Betty.
Betty and her fitness leaders saw paddling as a natural transition for their program and encouraged members to sign on to the team and commit to paddling in New Zealand in 2023.
It was an idea whose time had come. “The take-up was tremendous and things moved super fast as we prepared our first-ever roster of paddlers for their inaugural race,” says Betty.
The 33rd Toronto International Dragon Boat Race set for Marilyn Bell Park on Toronto’s lakeshore was the perfect opportunity to go racing, but it left only 18 days to prepare and practice together.
“Beirong joined us on the day of the race to cheer us on and lead us in a quick training,” says Betty. “We had so short a time to translate what we had practiced online into real world paddling.”
“Our captain organized us into a seating plan and we practiced paddling in unison right there on the grass,” recalls paddler Irene. “Oh my, what a scene as we clacked our paddles while working on our stroke. We were so nervous, but excited too!
We never dreamed we would be doing this on the water.”
“I explained the race calls and shared some critical tips from my own racing experience,” says Beirong. “There was a lot to absorb but they quickly came together as a team.”
It was a perfect summer day for the event, the first competition of its kind since pre-Covid times. Every paddler was pumped about returning to their sport.
Dragon boating was back!!
Among the 12 registered teams, Phoenix was the sole BCS team. Betty takes it from here:
“What an auspicious occasion for our Phoenix to rise,” says Irene. “As we marched to the staging area my head was spinning as I wondered ‘what are we going to do out there!”
We lined up dockside and loaded the boat, quickly tapping each others’ shoulders shouting “Let’s do it!” “Paddles up! Take it away.” Coach Beirong was in stroke position. We followed her pace and paddled as one to the start line alongside three competitive boats. Bang! We dug deep and paddled quickly, shouting “Go Phoenix go!”in unison. And in what felt like a flash, “Finishing! 12345 up, 12345 up!”
What a race! We let out cheers of triumph (and relief) as we paddled our way back to the dock to the frenetic hand-waving of those on shore. Crash! Watching our dragon head crunch and break off we happily absorbed one final paddling lesson that day: The race is not
quite over ‘til the boat comes to a stop with the dragon head intact.
At the debrief we all agreed we’d done extremely well after just two practices. The experience has given each woman great confidence to move forward, and more survivors are joining the team. The paddle season over, Phoenix paddlers began their winter indoor pool and fitness training.
“All eyes are now focussed on New Zealand,” says Betty with a smile. “We can’t wait to meet up with BCS dragon boat sisters from around world in 2023.”
Toronto Phoenix BCS dragon boat team