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Dragon boats bring cancer survivors together for camaraderie and fitness

The Victoria Dragon Boat Festival, in its 27th year, continues Sunday at the Inner Harbour with 33 teams competing.

Anne Grove and Bonnie Russell come from vastly different backgrounds.

Both have retired to Victoria — Grove as a former early childhood educator in Edmonton and Russell who ran a logging business in Tahsis.

But they are deeply connected.

Both are breast cancer survivors and both share a passion for racing dragon boats.

They’re members of the Vic Vixens who were racing Saturday at the 27th Canada Dry Victoria Dragon Boat Festival in the Inner Harbour. The event is expected to attract tens of thousands of visitors and continues today with 33 teams — 15 of which are crewed entirely by women.

The festival, which returned after a two-year pandemic hiatus, is also a major fundraiser for cancer research by the B.C. Cancer Foundation, and has raised about $800,000 over the years.

“It’s camaraderie and the fitness that I like,” said Grove, 70. “We all work together as a team.”

Russell, one of the event’s most senior members at 78, said she likes the supportive nature of the sport, where 22 people co-operate to pull the big boats in a smooth rhythm.

She’s raced dragon boats all over the world, including Israel, the U.S., Singapore and Australia.

”It’s just a fun and exciting thing to do, and it’s so supportive,” said Russell.

The Vixens also train all year on the Gorge and harbour areas.

Russell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and Grove in 2018. Both said they fear remission, but it’s not something either want to dwell upon. They prefer to enjoy life — and race the dragons.

“I put that in the very back part of my mind,” said Russell.

“We’re going to finish our next race, and then go over there,” she laughed, pointing to the beer tent and live music.

Added Grove: “You know anything can happen … I don’t think about it.”

Both racers were involved in an emotional carnation ceremony to start the festival on Saturday.

About two dozen cancer survivors/competitors walked under a tunnel of paddles to receive the flowers and then released them on the water to remember the women who had gone before them. Sarah McLauchlin’s I Will Remember You played as the carnations were set afloat.

“It was very emotional,” said Russell. “I’ve lost a dozen friends since I started paddling.”

Breast cancer accounts for 28% of all cancer cases in the province and is the most common cancer in women, according to the B.C. Cancer Agency.

The data also indicates that one in eight women could develop breast cancer over their lifetime, with one in 35 dying from the disease.

The B.C. Cancer Agency said an estimated 96% of women in B.C. diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 40.

The dragon boat festival attracts a range of ages, from early 20s and into the 80s. People take part to support survivors and ongoing cancer research. But they also race for their health and general well being.

Willie McDermot, a member of the Cowichan Valley Dragon Divas, is a an avid supporter who just likes being part of a team on the water.

“It’s lot of fun going out there with 22 people on a boat and working together,” she said.

McDermot, 76, said she was an avid kayaker with her husband, but he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Dragon boats were a way for McDermot to “get back out on the water and have some fun.”

Judy Peglau, 74, of the Comox Valley Flying Dragons team, loves the sport, despite “a bum knee.”

She admitted she wasn’t happy about finishing a close second during a race on Saturday, but reveled in the competition and good fitness that paddling brings.

“It’s a great sport,” Peglau said. Her Comox team is all women “and we really support each other.”

Her coach, Lauren Douglas, said Peglau is a dynamo, adding she plays pickleball and tennis, walks regularly and is a key member of the dragon boat team.

“Giving up is not in my vocabulary,” says Peglau. “It you don’t use it, you lose it.”

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