If you've been in Portage Lakes State Park in Ohio recently you just might have spotted some dragons. Not the long-toothed Loch Ness kind that live under the sea, but dragon boats that glide across the water.
Members of the Dragon Dream Team, all wearing pink life jackets, have been practicing their strokes on recent warm summer evenings. The women remained in sync when paddling the 40-foot watercraft. They were beautiful, strong, energetic and breast cancer survivors.
The team, which hones its skills three times a week on Rex Lake, is Ohio's first all-breast cancer survivor dragon boat team. On Saturday, they are hosting the second annual Dragons on the Lake Festival featuring 29 teams, 600 paddlers and six boats. The day begins at 8:15 a.m. with a ceremonial "awakening of the dragons." Once the racing begins at 9 a.m., it will be nonstop action with dragon boats heading to the finish line every 12 minutes.
The races are fast and furious, typically lasting one to two minutes. There will also be activities at the beach until the closing ceremony around 3:30 p.m.
Sitting in the front of the boat, petite Mary Hlavac beat on the drum, its vibrations echoing in the cove. It was her job to help the 20 paddlers with technique, keeping them moving at the same pace.
When asked how she got that cake job, she laughed noting it was her size combined with problems with her hands and elbows that earned her the spot. Being a boisterous musician who knows how to keep a beat didn't hurt either.
"I'm an outdoor person who loves being here," said Hlavac, an 18-year cancer survivor. "Getting out on the lake is great."
The women, who come to Portage Lakes from all over Northeast Ohio, said it's the camaraderie that they share with the other women that is as important, or maybe even more so, than the exercise. Throughout the year, the team has picnics, parties and other social events.
Their ages range from late 20s to around 80, said Marilyn Purdy, an eight-year survivor. And anyone, regardless of experience or skill level, can participate.
"What we try to do is live our team motto: good quality of life following breast cancer. Dragon boating is certainly one way to show others that can be very true, and it is true for us," she explained. "We are not only a dragon boat team, but we are also a great support system."
Dragon boating is an ancient Chinese sport. Present-day dragon boats are similar to those used more than a thousand years ago. The Dragon Dream Team notes that it's the second most popular team sport in the world, after soccer. Nearly 50 million people race dragon boats worldwide.
The local team was started by Jessica Mader, a breast cancer survivor from Silver Lake, Ohio.
In 2006, while recuperating from surgery at her summer home on a lake in Nova Scotia, the 76-year-old woke up one morning and found a paddle and note on her front porch. The note instructed her to show up at a dock where she would meet members of the "Bosom Buddies," a Canadian breast cancer survivor dragon boat team.
Thrilled that she had morphed from a convalescing patient into a summer athlete, she told her plastic surgeon, Dr. Douglas Wagner, about her adventure when she returned to Ohio. Impressed, he offered to buy a dragon boat if she could find enough people to form a team.
Today, there are about 80 on the roster and around 50 active paddlers. With so many participants, a second boat was purchased. Many practice nights, both boats are filled with grinning women in pink.
Last year, the first Dragons on the Lake Festival was launched to benefit Boatloads of Hope, a breast cancer and community outreach in Northeast Ohio. They give beautiful pashmina wraps to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients who are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy in area hospitals, along with a powerful message of hope.
"I think what makes them (the wraps) so special is that they are coming from women who have been there," Purdy said, "going through what they are going through."