Lakewood Ranch Herald

First round of races get under way at international Dragon Boat Festival in Benderson Park

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Five years ago, Janet Long, a native of the south coast of England, was diagnosed with breast cancer and her world turned upside down.

But thanks to her oncologist, who suggested she join the Pink Champagne Dragon Boat Ladies, she is now in a much better place emotionally and physically and has survived her battle with the deadly disease.

On a sunny and breezy Saturday morning at Nathan Benderson Park, Long and with the rest of her 20 teammates, were "tickled pink" after clocking in at 2 minutes and 49 seconds -- their best record to date -- following their first race as part of the 2014 International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival taking place this weekend.

More than 2,500 paddlers and breast cancer survivors from 10 different countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada and the Unit

ed States have teams participating in the three-day festival, the first major multi-national dragon boat festival to be held on American waters.

For Long, who last competed in a dragon boat paddle for breast cancer four years ago in Canada, her Florida experience has been well worth the effort.

"This is truly a wonderful experience. There's such tremendous spirit and camaradarie and it makes life truly worth living. It has opened up another door for me, to be quite honest," Long said, following her first race of the day.

The focus of dragon boating is not of competition or fundraising for breast cancer, but rather of participation by breast cancer survivors wishing to demonstrate there is life after the disease, and exercise is one way to tackle the challenge.

"That's what it's all about. Nobody gets a trophy here. Everyone receives the exact same medal. When you're diagnosed with breast cancer, your whole world gets rocked. This gives us a sense of empowerment that we're now back in charge of our bodies," said Kim Bonomo, the festival's president and co-chair. "This boat's not moving unless I pull it, and it moves best when we all work together," Bonomo said, a member of the Save Our Sisters Dragon Boat team from Miami.

The event organizers are all unpaid volunteers and everyone taking part in the paddling has paid to be a part of the team as well as paid for their own transportation to and from Sarasota. Ten teams of 20 paddlers are participating in morning and afternoon races accompanied by a drummer and someone to steer who sits in the stern of the boat, coordinating the power and rhythm of the paddlers.

After the semi-final and final rounds are completed on Sunday afternoon, the festival will end with the Sandy Smith Global Race, in honor of the original dragon-boat team member from Canada who was instrumental in organizing the first event.

Following that, 18 boats filled with paddlers will make their way back onto the lake for a flower ceremony in honor of those who have lost their battle with breast cancer.

For Steve Perryman of Manchester, England, who accompanied his wife, Elizabeth, to Sarasota, so she could paddle with the Manchester Paddlers For Life dragon boat team, the trip is an important part of her recovery.

"This gives her incredible companionship and she meets a lot of ladies in the same situation so she knows she's not alone."

Spectator Steve Remis who spends six months out of the year in Sarasota, and another six months traveling in an RV around the country, said he was moved by the festival.

"I started to tear up when this last group was going by. Just thinking about how far they've come emotionally, medically, spiritually and every other way. They fit together so beautifully," Remis said, standing on the shore as the boats headed in to sounds of clapping and cheers.

Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.