“Every day holds the possibility of a miracle.”
Celebrations can motivate us by being a reminder of how far we have come in certain areas of our lives. They keep us working toward our goals; we feel happier when we have something to look forward to or something worth celebrating. We honour big milestones like falling in love, significant birthdays and passing exams, but how many of us revel in the simple pleasures that bring us joy?
A few years ago, I was introduced to a group of highly motivated, inspirational women who changed my perception of celebration and gratitude. They come from all walks of life, but they have one common denominator, their lives have been deeply affected by breast cancer. These beautiful, strong women are collectively known as The Lagan Dragons.
One of the Dragons invited me to join the team for a ‘gentle’ paddle on a freezing winter morning. “Have a wee go?” she said. “You’ll love it, and we gather in the clubhouse afterwards for coffee and cake.” I was hesitant, to say the least; I’d never seen a dragon boat before, never mind paddled one, but my friend’s enthusiasm was hard to resist.
The Lagan Dragons are NI’s first-ever Dragon Boat team for people affected directly and indirectly by breast cancer. As a sports club with charitable status, they aim to support and develop emotional well-being while improving general health and fitness. They raise awareness for breast cancer and BRCA genes while promoting Dragon Boat racing and honouring its traditions. Dragon Boating is hugely beneficial for breast cancer survivors, as the action of paddling is perfect for the chest, breast, upper arm and lymph node area but the overall health benefits of this sport go far beyond physical.
Twenty-two dragons take their place in a forty-foot boat, twenty paddlers, a drummer and a helm; every woman has a story to tell without exception.
They compete in mainly summer regattas and train weekly in preparation. As the regatta season draws closer, their coach increases training to intensify focus, synchronicity and strength. They are ready to compete in the year’s biggest race by late May.
During a race, they paddle vigorously down the river course. They need power and stamina to get them over the line. The noise of the drums coupled with commands from the helm and brightly coloured boats make it an impressive sport to watch. It’s both hypnotic and exhilarating, a sight to behold!
The Lagan Dragons are a hugely accomplished team, each trophy and medal displayed with pride for their race wins and their own personal physical and emotional victories.
I arrived on the morning of my session as the women were warming up. The boat was already in the water, so we headed down to the riverbank along the pontoon and climbed in.
My initial experience is probably best described as a taxi ride. I was entirely out of my depth, so to speak and totally out of sync. I was holding the paddle incorrectly, bashing it into the side of the boat and splashing my fellow paddlers with ice-cold water. I spent the first thirty minutes as we made our way upstream, apologising for my incompetence and giggling with my newbie buddy as she was equally uncoordinated. It was hard work, this ‘gentle pace’, I felt muscles that I didn’t know I had.
As we paddled back towards the clubhouse, the fog lifted, and the sun came out to thaw us. I felt something click within me, maybe as my shoulders relaxed and I got over the ‘Oh my goodness, I’m on the river, in a boat!’ Perhaps I listened to our helm and found the rhythm. Or it could’ve been the tongue in cheek hurly-burly that flowed from the back of the boat that made me think, “This is cool; I love it!”
I can’t explain how peaceful I felt that morning as the boat glided along the water back towards the clubhouse; I hadn’t experienced it before. I was acutely aware that this experience was exceptional.
As the boat drifted alongside the pontoon, we fastened it securely and helped each other out. We made our way upstairs to the clubhouse with laughter and chitter-chatter echoing behind us. The smell of freshly made coffee and warm scones was in the air as we removed our buoyancy aids and washed our hands. Then into the warmth, genuine warmth, not just heat from the radiators but the warmth that only complete understanding and friendship can bring, and I felt it immediately.
What I observed that day was a celebration and within that celebration was a great appreciation for life. This was my first experience of gratitude in its purest and most heartfelt form. These women were grateful for the morning, for each other, the river, and the delicious cake. They were just thankful to be alive, and it oozed from them.
For me, this was an experience that altered my thinking. I had come to a juncture just before meeting the dragons, a significant change was afoot, and I was anxious. I was meant to be in the boat that morning, to feel and experience what I did. These women’s deep-rooted connection is powerful, almost spiritual, and I felt it. There are times within this circle when the women have faced unimaginable fears. Although they have friends and family to help and support them, the Dragons share a deep sense of awareness and understanding, almost telepathic. They paddle their way through tough times together, finding the strength to fight back. Together they grow more robust and more determined. They take great pride in climbing into their boat, calm and well-balanced, just doing what they do and celebrating each other. Thank you, Dragons, for this insight; I’ll be forever grateful.