Sarasota team looks to make community proud during Dragon Boat Festival for breast cancer

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Before they got into the water at Nathan Benderson Park on Thursday afternoon for a practice run, Kathy Levy reminded the dragon boat paddlers to take a deep breath because this was their home territory.

"This is your water," said Levy, who is helping coach the Sarasota-based Dragon Boat team, Survivors in Sync. "You know what to do."

After Nathan Benderson Park won the bid to host the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival, the Sarasota team was soon born. For the past year, the women of the Survivors in Sync dragon boat team have been preparing for this weekend's festival.

Rocking back and forth, the women shouted "Feel the rhythm. Feel the rhyme. Come on sis', it's butt -whipping time" before they got into the dragon boat for their 4 p.m. practice run on Thursday.

Team captain Angela Long has been involved since the team was just an idea in a meeting last summer and has since watched the idea grow into a team of more than 25 women.

"We feel so honored to be here and represent Sarasota and be involved in this worldwide event," Long said. "It's truly inspiring ... Giving (the Sarasota community) someone to cheer for has been amazing."

Survivors in Sync is one of the about 100 teams participating in Dragon Boat Festival, which begins Friday at Benderson Park. This is the first year the festival will be held in the United States and more than 10 countries, including Australia, Singapore, Italy, United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentina and Canada, will have dragon boat teams participating.

While teams have been practicing at Benderson Park since Wednesday, the festival officially kicks off at 5 p.m. Friday with the opening ceremony.

The first round of races begins at

8:30 a.m. Saturday and the second round of races will be paddled from 12:30-3:30 p.m. There will be a Parade of Nations at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Lakewood Ranch Main Street followed by a Pink Paddlers Party with food vendors and entertainment, also in Lakewood Ranch.

On Sunday, the semifinals will begin at 8:30 a.m. and the final races will be from 12:30-3:30 p.m. The flower ceremony will begin at 4 p.m. followed by the closing ceremony at 4:30 p.m.

For a complete schedule, go to www.sarasotabcs2014festival.org.

Sarasota resident Connie Keen, a member of the Survivors in Sync team and the chair of the Pink Paddlers Party, said she wanted to get involved with planning the festival as a way to thank the Tampa and Miami teams -- the event's host teams.

"Since I am a local survivor and they did so much to help start the team, this is an extra thank you," Keen said.

For the women on the Survivors in Sync team, it has become a sisterhood of women who all have something in common.

"To have that sisterhood that combines it with activity and a competitive sport, it takes it to a new level of bonding," Long said. "It is hard to put it into words. Some have concerns or have relapses and to have that kind of support and want to still go to practice because your sisters are there for you."

But Survivors in Sync don't plan to turn in their paddles anytime soon after this weekend's Dragon Boat Festival as this is just the beginning for the women.

"We are looking forward to four years from now," paddler Janet Crouse of Bradenton said.

Long said she is most excited for the energy that all the teams will bring to Benderson Park.

"I've been feeling that energy build for weeks," she said. "We always feel it at this park. It's like the park knew it was coming ... We hope we make Sarasota proud."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.