SARASOTA -- On Sunday, at the close of the three-day Dragon Boat Festival at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, 2,000 pink flowers were handed to breast cancer survivors.
There were more survivors than flowers.
Suddenly, everyone threw their flowers into the still park waters as a tribute to those who have lost their battle against breast cancer.
"It was the largest breast cancer survivor flower ceremony in history," said Paula Jennings, vice president of the organizing committee for the International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission Dragon Boat Festival.
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In the United States for the first time after stops in Canada, Australia and Canada again, the Dragon Boat Festival drew 2,500 cancer survivor paddlers, 500 cancer survivor supporters, 500 local volunteers and thousands of fans to Benderson Park for the event, which occurs every four years.
Before this weekend in Sarasota when 101 boats signed up -- each 44-foot boat has a crew of 20 paddlers, a drummer who keeps the beat and a steerer -- the largest number of boats at this event was about 70, Jennings said.
The record number of teams made Sunday's closing flower ceremony much more powerful.
"It was very emotional," said Sarasota resident Isabelle Striplin, who served as ambassador to the New Zealand team of Dragon Boat paddlers called Boobops . "That was the moment you needed your tissues."
Striplin, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, said she was awed at having been invited to be one of the roughly 500 volunteers who helped stage the festival, which featured breast cancer survivors from the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada and the United States.
"It was truly global," Striplin said.
Knot A Breast is fastest
The Dragon Boat Festival organizers don't like to say one boat is crowned "champion" because they say every team of paddlers has championship grit.
Knot a Breast from Lake Ontario in Ontario, Canada, had the fastest time of all boats, digging through Sunday's 500-meter final in a blistering two minutes, 25 seconds and 91 tenths of a second.
Pink Steel from Pittsburgh was second in 2:26.60. CanSurvive from Wellington, New Zealand, was third in 2:28.53.
Ironically, the cover picture on Sarasota's Dragon Boat Festival program showed Knot A Breast coach Kathy Levy in the drummer's seat on Nate's Hope, the dragon boat used locally by the Sarasota team, Survivors In Sync, which also competed.
"Kathy lives in Canada most of the year but for several months she is in Sarasota as a snow bird and helps out with the Sarasota team," Jennings said. "It's ironic her team from Canada had the fastest time in the event."
Great team names
Dragon boaters have a tradition of coming up with great team names as part of the fun in having a dragon boat team, they say.
Although Buoyant Buddies and Bust 'N Loose from Canada and Missin' Mammaries from Punta Gorda were all pretty good, the unofficial winners in an unofficial poll of fans were the Kentucky Thorough-Breasts.
Led by Capt. Pam Harper and ace paddler Phyllis Kelsch, the Thorough-Breasts were founded in fall 2008 and are coached by Priscilla Elgersma, who loses her voice cheering every meet.
"We have women who drive 90 minutes each way for practice two times a week," Elgersma said, speaking of Ann Meese of Sardinia, Ohio, and Carol Edwards of Dayton, Ohio, who drive to A.J. Jolly Lake in Northern Kentucky to get the intense exercise doctors say is great for cancer survivors.
"I'm so proud of our team," Elgersma said. "We were 31st out of 101 teams after the first race. We really rocket the last 100 meters."
Most of the Thorough-Breasts were attending their first international event.
"I will never forget the opening ceremonies," cancer survivor Kelsch said. "Being a part of a sea of pink. I felt we were all there to celebrate life. It was a sea of love for each other."
Two members of the Thorough-Breasts have died since the team was created, Kelsch said.
One member is now out of remission and could not come to Sarasota.
Aussies light up event
It seemed like all 2,500 paddlers had a phone number or an email address from someone on an Australian team, whose members seemed to be always smiling.
Aussie Olwyn Jacobsen was wearing a Canadian cowboy hat for which she had swapped her Aussie ball hat.
Gabrielle Boermans of Dragons Abreast couldn't stop smiling.
"I've made so many friends," said breast cancer survivor Boermans, a nurse who lists her passions as helping returning veterans, singing South African gospel in her community choir in Fishermans Paradise, Australia, three hours south of Sydney -- and being a Dragon Boat paddler.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond