Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
At a glance, Florence, Italy’s Arno River seemed to be dyed pink on July 8, at the conclusion of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Dragon Boat Festival.
It wasn’t, but it might as well have been. The thousands of pink shirts worn by participants on the river’s banks caused a reflection.
The scene was created as the top-10 finishing boats, including Nathan Benderson Park-based Survivors in Sync, home to many Lakewood Ranch-area rowers, remained on the water to be honored. Survivors in Sync tied for fourth overall — out of 125 teams — in a festival Survivors head coach Angela Long calls the Olympics of dragon boat racing. The team posted its best-ever time in the final race (500 meters in 2:22.00).
The team’s results were impressive, and Long said the high finish was something her team has been working toward since 2014, when the last festival was held at Nathan Benderson Park. Survivors in Sync was a new team then.
Funny enough, Long used a Will Ferrell movie, “Semi-Pro,” to motivate the team. In the movie, Ferrell’s character simply wanted his sad-sack team to finish fourth in the league, and chanted “Fourth place!” at them. Long watched the movie with her son, Connor Long, before going to Italy, and she found herself ironically using the same chant with Survivors in Sync to keep the team focused heading into the final races. The team wanted to win the whole thing, of course, but after failing to break the top 30 in the last festival, the local paddlers were satisfied to show they belonged with the teams at the top.
“I’m so proud of the girls and how they stayed in the moment,” Long said. “They encouraged each other. They knew it was a journey.”
Lakewood Ranch's Janet Crouse, a Survivors in Sync member, said the atmosphere was more impressive than the racing. Every participant had been diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during their life. It made for a supportive group and an emotional sendoff.
The conclusion of the festival wasn’t just pink shirts. Women from different countries shared their personal stories. Enya’s “Only Time” played over the speaker. Each participant took a pink daisy and placed it in the water, symbolizing past members of the teams who are no longer with us. Long said it was something out a storybook. There wasn’t a dry eye in sight, she said.
Just prior to that ceremony was the Sandy Smith Global Finale, the last “race” of the event in which every team choses one representative to race for them. The representatives are divided into five boats, and are told to stay as close together as possible. The race, named for the IBCPC’s first global liaison, represents worldwide support for everyone battling the disease.
Crouse was Survivors in Sync’s representative, as voted on by the team. Her cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2001, returned in 2015, and hasn’t gone away despite multiple types of treatments.
“It was everyone sharing in one thing,” Crouse said. “The support was amazing. Every time I think about it, I cry.”
Just hearing about the final day's events had me emotional. I can't imagine what it was like in person. The festival is a reminder of how good most of us have it, and how that can all change in an instant. It's not a new idea, but it's an important one.
Hats off to Survivors in Sync for shining on an international stage, and may you find all find strength in your ongoing battles.
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