In their first race during the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, Team Stayin’ Alive arrived in last place — but you wouldn’t know it by their faces.
“It was just awesome,” said team founder Keith Wilson, 69, who next month marks two years free of throat cancer.
“Six of us never raced before today, and the difference looking at their faces at 8 a.m. and after the race at 8:25 a.m. was incredible.” The team was fourth of four.
There was a look of mental and physical strength emboldened not just by this race, but a longer one that got them to this day as survivors.
“I saw the light in their faces,” Wilson said. “They might have gone into the boat as John or Mary, but when we came out we were Stayin’ Alive.”
Each paddle pulled through the ocean water represented powering through all the hard times and leaving them behind, he said.
“You take your frustration and your pain and you pull through with power and leave it in the water.”
The three-day festival and racing regatta at Ship Point in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, in its 24th year, is the city’s largest Asian cultural festival and a fundraiser for the B.C. Cancer Foundation.
To date, female breast-cancer survivor teams have dominated the entries and had their own category of races.
This year, Wilson, looking for a way to reclaim his life and a feeling of empowerment, formed a team of people with other cancers — cancers with, perhaps, smaller networks and less support.
Team Stayin’ Alive started training in July with barely enough members, some experienced paddlers and many novices.
True to their Bee Gees-influenced name, seven of the teammates are cancer survivors. Six have completed treatment for throat, thyroid, pancreatic, breast, melanoma and brain cancers. One is battling throat cancer. Some of the 11 teammates have immediate family members living with cancer.
Getting the diagnosis is devastating and lonely, Wilson said.
“It rips your guts right out of you,” he said. “This body you thought was going to carry you through, you find out now it’s going to kill you.
“Your confidence goes right down the tubes, and this team gives you that back.”
And although he’s airing these thoughts, cancer is never a topic of conversation among teammates.
“Being part of a team like this is you don’t need to talk about it; they’ve been in your shoes,” Wilson said. “I’m a supporter and a survivor, and you don’t need to say anything because we’ve all been there — just a hug, that’s all you need to share the power.”
Wilson said often supporters and loved ones standing by feeling helpless need more attention. “They have it harder, in ways.”
Despite some trepidation on the part of some paddlers headed into the race Saturday, all came out feeling victorious.
“One woman said: ‘I want to do that again,’ ” Wilson said. He told her she’d have to wait.
Team Stayin’ Alive paddles in two more races today.
The event is free to watch. Proceeds come from team registration fees and related initiatives. The teams are either co-ed or all women, and compete in various categories.
Along with the races, there will be live bands, a food court and activities for families.
For more information, go to victoriadragonboat.com.