Struggling to catch their breath, Betty Solley, of Philadelphia, Pa., and her teammates paddled furiously on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., pushing themselves to the limit under the scorching sun in their red and gold dragon boat.
“Crossing that finish line was a huge challenge,” Betty, 69, recalls of her first race in 2004. “It was an awesome experience, but it was also when I realized that I really had to train for this sport.”
Almost 10 years later, Betty is an accomplished dragon boat athlete. She is a member of Against the Wind, a crew of the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix dragon boat team made up entirely of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and a member of the PFP’s premiere red crew. In 2012 she paddled on the River Thames in London at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Now Betty has been selected as a member of Team USA’s senior C division, which will represent the United States in July 2013 at the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Szeged, Hungary.
The former health and physical education teacher’s dragon boating career began after she was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in winter 2003. After undergoing a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, Betty looked for a way to restore and build her physical fitness.
The opportunity presented itself during a workshop she attended at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania’s annual conference, “Life After Breast Cancer.” A workshop attendee talked about the physical and emotional benefits of dragon boating, a racing sport in which 20 paddlers synchronize their strength, endurance and technique to power a dragon-headed, 41-foot-long canoe through the water faster than their competition. Betty was invited to try paddling with Against the Wind, and she enthusiastically accepted.
Betty met the team for the first time in fall 2003, a few weeks after she finished treatment. That day, she got in the boat and watched the women around her, eventually paddling one side while the team member next to her paddled the other. Before she knew it, the boat went quickly forward.
“It felt like something unique and different, and it wasn’t like anything I had done before,” Betty says.
The summer following her first race, Betty began training rigorously by working out on a rowing machine and lifting weights. Recently, Betty began joining her peers at a paddle pool several times a week to perfect her technique in a stationary boat. She now goes to the gym twice a week to strength train, using machines to condition her entire body.
As a result of her hard work, Betty can now perform seated dip repetitions with a resistance of 200 pounds. She has also drastically improved her running distance: Before joining Against the Wind, Betty couldn’t run a quarter mile; now she’s training for a 5k race.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to get out there and run without pain,” she says. “It wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t training with the team.”
This is why Betty encourages women who have completed breast cancer treatment to try dragon boating—it’s an aerobic activity that builds endurance, increases flexibility and fosters a sense of community among teammates.
“I’m of two minds—dragon boating and actively promoting breast cancer awareness through dragon boating,” Betty says.
Betty is active in Against the Wind’s “Survivors In Sync,” an outreach program the crew runs in partnership with local hospitals. The program aims to bring women who have completed breast cancer treatment to the Schuylkill River to try dragon boating and meet other women who have also experienced the disease.
As someone who sought a more physically active outlet than a support group, Betty says what she loves most about dragon boating and Against the Wind is the camaraderie.
“The focus is not on cancer, but if someone has a recurrence, then they become a magnet for support—when you are on Against the Wind, we have your back,” she says.
Betty says the team is looking to expand, and she hopes women who have been treated for breast cancer will consider a dragon boat test drive with Against the Wind or a team near them.
“It’s a sisterhood,” Betty says. “It’s a way for you to belong to a group that is beyond cancer.”
To learn more about Survivors In Sync, visit Philadelphia Flying Phoenix’s website at PhiladelphiaFlyingPhoenix.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Against the Wind, visit facebook.com/pfpatw or meetup.com/AgainstTheWind.
Want to get involved with a dragon boat team near you? Visit the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission website at ibcpc.com/members for a list of U.S. dragon boat teams and websites.