Paddles up!

Did you know that, for the last nine years, The Gathering Place has sponsored a dragon boat team comprised of cancer survivors and their supporters (caregiver, family, friend)? How cool is that? The team practices one evening each week during the summer, and competes in the annual Cleveland Dragon Boat Festival. (The video above was taken* at this year’s festival on the Black River in Lorain, Ohio. [*Thanks Chris Groman!])(Also, thanks Beth Bennett for almost all of the photos below!)

Dragon boat racing is an ancient Chinese sporting tradition that has become increasingly popular in the west over the last 30 or 40 years. In 1996, a Canadian sports doctor named Donald McKenzie recognized its healing potential for breast cancer patients and survivors and started a team for them, “Abreast in a Boat.” In an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1998, McKenzie explained:

“In many ways, (dragon boating) is an ideal exercise (for breast cancer patients and survivors). It is non-weight-bearing and therefore is associated with a lower risk of injury than weight-dependent activities such as running. It is safe, and with proper technique the paddler can recruit a reasonable amount of muscle mass and induce positive adaptations in the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. It uses predominantly upper extremity and trunk muscles, and the improvement in strength has a carry-over effect to day-to-day activity. The training intensity can be varied simply by pulling harder.”

The Gathering Place “DragonFlys” are coached primarily by fitness trainer Michael Ciccarello and the Gathering Place’s registered dietician and physical therapist, Beth Bennett. The team(s) meets for practice on the Cuyahoga River every Wednesday evening, June through August, launching from Merwin’s Wharf in Cleveland’s Flats district. After practice, many paddlers stick around for refreshment at the restaurant, or at nearby Sainato’s. Team DragonFlys fill two boats – female survivors in one, and supporters (and some survivors) in the other – and spends the summer preparing for the annual Cleveland Dragon Boat Festival, where we finally get to race against other area teams.

At this year’s festival on the Black River, both DragonFly teams improved their 250 meter race time with every heat, and the survivor boat took home this year’s cancer division trophy! (Ok, we had the only full survivor boat in that division this year, but we earned it!) At the conclusion of the official races, DragonFly Survivors scrimmaged with the visiting Kentucky Thoroughbreasts (a team of both survivors and support staff from the organization), trading some teammates and paddling tips just for fun!


Dragon-boating is “serious fun.” The team works hard to develop proper paddling technique, endurance, and timing (a boat full of out-of-sync paddlers resembles what one coach memorably described as a “drunken caterpillar”), but also shares a lot of laughter and encouragement. Workouts on the river build strength, confidence, and camaraderie. If you’re struggling a bit with mindfulness or concentration, dragon boating leaves you no choice but to focus on the moment – listening to the instructions from the tiller (who steers the boat) and the count from the drummer, watching the pacers… If your mind wanders, you’re soon out of sync with your teammates and the dreaded drunken caterpillar commandeers the boat!

Don’t be shy! Fully half of this year’s team was comprised of new-to-the-sport paddlers. Some had only recently completed treatment! If you’re intrigued, continue to watch this space: some of the DragonFlys are plotting to gather for off-season/land-based fitness training and we’ll share that info here. And as soon as next year’s orientation session is scheduled, we’ll publish that here, as well.

“Are you ready? Attention please! Paddles up! Go!!!!!”


A few articles about the Gathering Place DragonFlys:

And a couple more about our friendly “rivals,”* the Dragon Dream Team from Akron! (*just kidding about the rivalry; they smoke us every time we meet… But we have a great time!)

One thought on “Paddles up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s