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Prose and Kohn

Paddlers share stories from international breast cancer dragon boat event

Survivors in Sync of Sarasota finished second overall at the festival, held April 15-16 on Lake Karapiro in Cambridge, New Zealand.

The Survivors in Sync dragon boat team finish second overall in New Zealand, beating every team from the northern hemisphere.
The Survivors in Sync dragon boat team finish second overall in New Zealand, beating every team from the northern hemisphere.
Courtesy photo
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It's still chokes them up. 

The Survivors in Sync dragon boat team, which is made up of breast cancer survivors and calls Nathan Benderson Park home, went to New Zealand on April 15-16 to compete in the 2023 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Participatory Dragon Boat Festival.

It's a festival that happens once every four years, or at least that's the plan. Sometimes something like COVID-19 gets in the way. Before the 2023 event, the last festival was held in 2018 in Florence, Italy. Members of Survivors in Sync went to that festival, too.

This time, Survivors in Sync placed second in the event.

Some members of the 24-person SIS roster had been to the Italy festival. However, Vanessa Burns and Jackie Siegel-Frascella were among the first-timers. They knew it would be emotional, they said, but nothing could have prepared them for the sight of 85 teams' worth of breast cancer survivors gathering to race and to support each other. 

"It makes you think of the people who are still battling it or who have been lost," Siegel-Frascella said, her voice wobbling. 

Vanessa Burns and Jackie Siegel-Frascella were two of the 24 Survivors in Sync paddlers to make the trip to New Zealand, calling it unforgettable.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Every dragon boat festival has at least a small ceremony for breast cancer survivors, but nothing compares to the ceremonies at IBCPC festivals. Burns said everyone gathered on the beach of Lake Karapiro, roses held aloft. The gathered participants sang songs, listened to speeches and clapped for some people with especially long battles with cancer who were pulled front and center for special recognition.

At the end, the roses are tossed into the water. Sometimes this is done on boats, but it was windy at the time of the ceremony, so everyone stayed on shore. It didn't dampen the event's impact at all. 

"It was totally amazing to see," Burns said. 

It's also amazing to do. Survivors in Sync's paddlers don't travel just to feel emotions, they travel to compete at the highest level, despite the festival labeling itself as "participatory" and not competitive. 

"If you're not going to try to win, don't bother going," Siegel-Frascella said. "We didn't know what the competition was going to be like, but we were out to beat them all." 

SIS didn't quite win — the hometown Lake Karapiro team finished first overall in the team standings. But SIS did finish second overall, beating every team from the Northern Hemisphere, which is still a great accomplishment. SIS was the only U.S. representative to finish in the top 10 overall. The team took gold in the 200 meter race and bronze in the 500 meter race among other strong results. 

The success of SIS is no surprise to anyone who has followed the team over the years. Under the direction of Angela Long, Benderson Park's head paddling coach, SIS has become one of the most competitive breast cancer survivor teams in the country every year, as well as an important support system for its athletes. Teammates in every sport say they care about each other, and sometimes that is true, but the SIS paddlers don't need to say it. It is felt every time they take the water, and in every smile they give each other.

Members of the Survivors in Sync dragon boat team, including coach Angela Long, were selected to Team USA for the International Dragon Boat Federation World Dragon Boat Racing Championships.
File photo

It makes sense, then, that Burns and Siegel-Frascellaboth said going to New Zealand was the trip of a lifetime, and talking about it brings tears to their eyes. This goes beyond the results sheet. It's about living, for yourself and for everyone standing next to you. 

The town of Cambridge was fully supportive of the festival, Siegel-Frascella said. People gathered in the streets to cheer on the competitors during the Parade of Nations. Burns said it made her feel like a superhero. 

And the views? Forget about it. Burns and Siegel-Frascella both stayed in New Zealand for a few days after the event, taking in the unbelievable scenery. 

"The landscape is wild," Siegel-Frascella said. "You go 10 miles and everything is totally different. It's just gorgeous."

There are fields of green, mountains of snow, icy glaciers, and vast fjords of water that run in-between everything. It's like nothing Burns had seen before, she said, and she'll never forget the beauty, nor the things she did, like a tour of a redwood forest or a zip-line experience. Siegel-Frascella said she took a jet boat ride on the Dart River that whipped into 360-degree spins, and she told the story while wearing a massive grin. 

It is easy to see how inspiring and life-affirming such a trip can be. It is easy to forget how good most of us have it, and how that can all change in an instant with one diagnosis. But thanks to festivals like this one, and people like the members of SIS, it is also easy to remember how many people are willing to support those going through tough times. 

It provides people with hope, and that is more important than any win or loss. 

And second in the world? That's pretty good, too. 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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