SARASOTA -- An international dragon boat festival coming to Nathan Benderson Park next year will feature thousands of breast cancer survivors racing, and organizers are putting a call out to survivors in Manatee and Sarasota to form a team.
It will be the first time the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission's Participatory Dragon Boat Festival is held in the United States, said Kim Bonomo,
president and co-chair of the 2014 festival, and president of Miami-based Save Our Sisters dragon boat organization. The international events are done on a four-year rotating basis, with national and regional events in between.
More than 3,000 breast cancer survivors from 12 countries will descend on Benderson Park from Oct. 24-26, 2014.
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"When Sarasota-Bradenton see these pink paddlers, they're going to be so moved because it is such a feel-good thing to see these women fighting a deadly disease, pick themselves up and going on with life," Bonomo said.
Dragon boat paddling for breast cancer survivors was started in 1996 by Canadian Dr. Don McKenzie, who wanted to prove that the exercise from paddling could have benefits for breast cancer survivors, according to the International Breast Cancer Paddling Commission website. The international events have been held in Vancouver, Caloundra, Australia and Peterborough, Canada.
"The mission of a breast cancer dragon boat team is to offer a chance to recover from breast cancer and regain their passion, to regain their confidence -- to take them from being a survivor to a thriver," Bonomo said.
As part of the preparation for the 2014 event, Sarasota resident and breast cancer survivor Angela Long is heading up efforts to form a team with Sarasota and Bradenton area breast cancer survivors.
"This kind of gives women permission to join a support group and take action rather than sit and feel sorry for themselves," Long said. "They're proactive. They're living life because that's what it's all about."
The group will start practicing this October on land and water, each Saturday and one session during the week, said Long, who is helping with the international festival and is president of the advocacy group Breast Investigators.
The group of about 50 rowers and volunteers will help raise money and seek sponsors to help defray costs of supplies and the race itself, Long said.
The festival also hopes to play a part in the opening of the nearby Mall at University Town Center on North Cattleman Road, which is expected to open its doors on Oct. 14, 2014, just days before the festival, Bonomo said. Organizers are working on forming a relationship with Saks Fifth Avenue, one of the mall's anchors, for the event.
What is a dragon boat, anyway?
"It's a 40-foot-long canoe-type vessel that seats 20 paddlers, tandem, with a coxswain, which is your steersman, and a drummer who sits on the side," Bonomo said.
Rowers paddle facing forward as opposed to sculls, which are rowed backward, she added. The boats usually feature ornate dragons for a figurehead, and the rowers themselves in the Breast Cancer Paddlers events are donned in their best pink apparel.
"Dragon boating is a really down-to-earth, kick-ass sport," Bonomo said. "It's hard to master, but it's easy to do. I could give you 10 minutes of instruction and could put you out on a boat and you'd have fun."
A wide range of ages and physical ability can participate, Long said, and though muscles are helpful in rowing, brute strength is not key for dragon boats.
"It seems to be a sport of timing and strength," Long said.
The economic impact of the event is beginning to be realized. It is expected to generate 8,000 room nights at area hotels, and because of the festival atmosphere, Bonomo and Long were at a U.S. Tent event last week to scout for their needs for the festival and network with area businesses. The event needs more than 100 team tents for the festival area, Bonomo said, plus hospitality tents for opening and closing ceremonies, areas for seminars and a vendor village.
"We picked Sarasota-Bradenton because it has that small-town feel, yet it has that infrastructure that can handle something like this," Bonomo said. A delegation of people from Miami's Save Our Sisters and Tampa's Pink Dragon Ladies considered other locations, but liked the receptiveness from area officials to have the festival in Sarasota, she added.
Bonomo has praised Benderson Park for the work so far, and thinks that after the 2014 event when the rest of the venue is complete, a national Breast Cancer Paddlers event could be held at the park, and help expose the park to other dragon boat organizations that could bring events here. About 150 breast cancer dragon boat teams exist in the world, she said, and about 2,000 regular dragon boat teams in the world with competitive and masters abilities.
Volunteers and sponsors are still needed for the Dragon Boat Festival itself. To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-776-5016.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.