UNIVERSITY PARK -- Women paddled in unison on Saturday.
Yet, although they were competing against each other, they had already won their biggest competition.
"We are sisters on the beach, but we are competitors on the water," organizer Kim Bonomo said. "Our race is not to the finish line, it is to the start line. We are here." Seven teams with a total of 130 breast cancer survivors gathered from cities around the state to compete on Saturday.
"One of our missions is to keep getting more women involved so they can feel the empowerment," Bonomo said.
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As a survivor, she said she needed something more proactive than a support group. "That boat doesn't move unless you paddle," Bonomo said. "It doesn't move to its capacity unless we paddle together. This
is so symbolic of life."
Saturday's event was a preview for the 2014 International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Participatory Dragon Boat Festival that will be held at Benderson Park Oct. 24-26 and which will feature more than 3,000 breast cancer-survivor paddlers and supporters. More than 10 nations will be represented.
Miami's Save Our Sisters team, led by captain Bonomo, and Tampa's Pink Dragon Ladies are hosting the event.
Bonomo said she hoped Saturday's event reminds the community, "The pink paddlers are coming." Pink is the color associated with breast cancer events.
She believes the event's impact will go beyond economics.
"Women are going to see us and go get a mammogram," she said.
Beth Gitlin, team leader for the Melbourne team, said she was enjoying her first experience competing with her newly formed team.
"It's been excellent for us to actually compete. We practice twice a week but we don't ever get to race," she said. "They are experiencing the camaraderie for the first time."
The team usually practices in the Banana River, so getting to paddle in a lake also was a new experience.
Although smaller than other dragon-boat events, there was one dedicated vendor, ICEpodz, with its personal core-body coolers.
"It's an amazing group of women it really is," owner Barbara Wheatley said. "We get invited to all the breast cancer events and give back a percentage of our sales to the organization."
Paddlers were loving the cool-off offered by the ICEpodz, which were being loaned and sold.
Warriors on Water, from Orlando, were enjoying the beautiful venue, captain Jan Croud said.
"I am looking forward to what they do with it in the coming months," Croud said. "It can only get better."
For her the friendships made, was the best part of the paddling events.
"Everybody has been through cancer but everybody's experience is different," Croud said. "It's a very good support system."
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.