In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie, a British Columbia Professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and exercise physiologist, challenged the prevailing medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema, a debilitating and chronic side effect of treatment.
He developed a program to determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors, choosing dragon boat paddling as the epitome of strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise. He trained twenty-four breast cancer volunteers in a gym for three months, introduced them to dragon boats and taught them paddling techniques. At the end of the three-month season on the water none of the women had lymphedema. Further, while Dr. McKenzie’s medical research was underway, the women found they were fitter, healthier and happier. They loved the camaraderie and support of their fellow paddlers and had regained control of their lives. They realized that dragon boat paddling could become a means to raise awareness of breast cancer and of the ability of survivors to lead normal lives. They named their team ‘Abreast In A Boat’ and invited other survivors to share their exciting experience.
A year later, the 2nd breast cancer dragon boat team, Dragons Abreast Toronto, was founded by Eleanor Nielsen after meeting members of Abreast In A Boat in Vancouver. It was introduced to other countries by Eleanor and other breast cancer survivors who saw the benefits. These inspirational individuals started communicating across the miles, providing much support and encouragement to see other survivors reap the benefit of dragon boating and the health and fitness benefits it provided.
Since 1996, as more and more interest came about, representatives from different countries joined together to paddle in different places including Canada, Australia, Italy, Penang, New Zealand, Singapore, Poland and the United States. In 2005, a celebration of the start of Abreast In A Boat took place in Vancouver, Canada – an international event with over 2000 breast cancer survivors from around the world. Following this Festival, Australia hosted ‘Abreast in Australia’ in 2007. Further festivals followed in Peterborough, Canada in 2010 and in Sarasota, Florida in 2014. Each festival provides breast cancer survivors with the opportunity to network, attend workshops, paddle and celebrate life!
In 1997, Dragons Abreast Toronto, the world’s second dragon boat team for breast cancer paddlers, was founded by Eleanor Nielsen after meeting members of Abreast In A Boat in Vancouver. Early in the team recruitment process, she was joined by Rose Jones and Marilyn Schneider, who helped steer the early years. 33 eager novices made up the first team. It wasn’t long before there were enough members for 2 crews. The goal of the team, according to Nielsen, is to demonstrate that there is life after breast cancer. The benefits of improved physical fitness and support of team members make the sport of dragon boat racing extremely popular among breast cancer survivors.
In 2002, Eleanor Nielsen wrote the forward to the book How to Ride a Dragon: 22 women with breast cancer tell their stories, written by her friend Michelle Tocher who was inspired by Eleanor’s dream to relate the experiences of survivors of breast cancer who had adopted the ancient Chinese ritual of dragon boating. It was an immediate success, enabling Dragons Abreast to donate close to $25,000.00 to the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Initiative. A second edition of How to Ride a Dragon was published in 2011 and proceeds from this edition are directed to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Eleanor Nielsen has made a major contribution to the development of the sport of dragon boat for people diagnosed with breast cancer, in Canada and internationally. She was awarded a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in 2009; and the citation said Nielsen had “given hope to thousands of women”.
In 2017, Dragons Abreast celebrated its 20 year anniversary by paddling the last 100 km of the Rideau Canal by dragon boat, arriving in Ottawa for Canada Day 150. The six-day voyage was made a fundraiser, raising over $20,000 for Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto. Eleanor Nielsen says that Gilda’s was chosen because it’s important that “we never forget that we are some of the fortunate ones travelling the breast cancer journey. It is an honour to raise money in Gilda’s name, so no one has to face cancer alone.”
Over the years, Dragons Abreast Toronto has competed in regattas across Canada, in New York City and Australia. Individual team members have paddled in Shanghai, Singapore, Cape Town, Rome, Venice and most recently (summer 2018) in Florence, Italy and Szeged, Hungary. 20 years after the first team started, there are now over 200 breast cancer teams worldwide and the sport of dragon boating has captured the imagination and spirit of breast cancer survivors around the world.
The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most spectacular traditions of ancient China. It is an exciting period for rowing competitions marked by the eating of rice dumpling called “Ma Chang”. In some Chinese-speaking societies, the day is also known as the “Poets’ Day”.
The Legend behind the Dragon Boat Festival embodies the story of love and service for one’s country. About 2300 years ago, during the Warring States period, a well-respected poet and statesmen named “Qu Yuan” lived in the Chinese Kingdom of Chu and served the government with integrity as Minister of State. He was disturbed by the corruption and by the court intrigues of many courtiers who resented his talent, popularity and sense of righteousness. One version said that other officials convinced the Emperor that Qu Yuan was corrupt, that his plea for reforms be ignored and had him banished from the Kingdom.
For years, he wandered the countryside composing poems expressing his patriotism and love for the people. Either as an act of despair or an ultimate protest against the corrupt government, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mei Lo river (in today’s Hunan province) on the fifth day of the fifth month in the year 278 B.C. Qu Yuan opted to commit suicide rather than lose face and honour by serving a corrupt government.
He composed two famous poems known as “Ai Ying” and “Huai Sha” before jumping into the river with a large stone tied to himself. Grief-stricken local fishermen who witnessed Qu Yuan’s desperate act, tried to save the patriotic poet. They sailed up and down the river to look for him and desperately thrashed the water with their oars and paddles to scare off the hungry fishes which might eat his body. To commemorate the patriotic man, the fishermen and rural town folks threw cooked rice dumplings wrapped in silk or banana leaves, into the water in order to appease the spirits of the river on his death anniversary. These rice dumplings are called “Tsung Tze” or “Ma Chang”.
The first Dragon Boat Races were recorded in the Tsin period. It became popular in the Tang Dynasty ( 618-907 A.D.) spreading throughout the Yangtze River Valley and to most of South China. One paddler traditionally stands in the boat searching for Qu Yuan’s body while a drummer on board and the ferocious-looking dragon designs were added to frighten away evil water spirits. This is because Chinese people traditionally regarded the dragons as presiding over the water and having dominion over rainfall. It is also the supreme symbol of power and benevolence in the Far East.In the present day, the Dragon Boat Festival is held annually in different nations world wide. In China alone, 20 million people are active in this sport which is organized in the various cities and provinces.