‘Paddles with a Purpose’ team of breast cancer survivors find community in dragon boating

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Members of Paddles with a Purpose –– Austin’s first and only dragon boating team comprised of breast cancer survivors –– practices on Lady Bird Lake. 

Fog hovers over the lake as 22 women dressed in neon yellow and black athletic wear file into a 41-foot long dragon boat. Life jackets and paddles in tow, they glide onto the water and begin to pick up speed.

Their chant echoes through the air: “Paddles with a Purpose, that’s our name. Dragon boating is our game. We paddle tough, please don’t blame. We fought cancer just the same.”

Standing at the back of the boat steering with a 12-foot-long oar is the team’s manager, Nella Bea Anderson, encouraging the other women to paddle faster, harder and in sync. Anderson said their resolve to fight breast cancer drives them forward.

The dragon boating team, Paddles with a Purpose, formed in July and applied for a nonprofit license in August, making it the first breast cancer survivor team in the Austin area. They are composed of 35 breast cancer survivors from Round Rock to San Marcos, ages 40 to 82. 

“It’s so powerful being on the boat with people who have similar life experiences as you,” Anderson said. “Some of these ladies are still going through treatment, but you take that pain, you get on the boat and it becomes strength. The fear of the cancer coming back becomes determination.”

Paddles with a Purpose practices twice a week at Lady Bird Lake for upcoming races. They are currently training for their first team race at the Austin Dragon Boat Festival in April. The team also plans to compete in the Dragon Boat Festival hosted by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, which will take place in New Zealand in 2022. 

As a sport, dragon boating is thousands of years old. Health benefits that have been discovered through scientific study include improvements to muscular flexibility, strength and immune defense in breast cancer survivors. For members of this particular team, the sport has fostered a supportive environment where they found fellowship.

AJ Rich, a breast cancer survivor and a capital planning and construction program analyst at UT, is the group’s treasurer. She said her favorite part about the team is the inspiration it gives her. Rich lived an active lifestyle before being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at age 39, but she said getting back on her feet was hard.

“My motivation to workout waxed and waned over the years,” Rich said. “After my first weekend of paddling, I was hooked. It was so much fun and it got me out and exercising.”

Even though she’s recovering from a preventative surgery and cannot paddle this month, Rich still goes to practice. She said she loves talking with her teammates.

“We all come from different walks of life,” Rich said. “But it’s really reassuring that we’re all in this fight together.”

Jody Kelly, the team’s eldest member at the age of 82, was a triathlete before her diagnosis in 2018. She tried to return to the sport once she recovered from surgeries and chemotherapy, but she said once she discovered dragon boating, there was nothing that could beat it.

“It is the most intense team sport I’ve ever participated in,” Kelly said. “You can always tell when somebody in the boat — frequently me — is out of sync because paddles will clash, water will splash or the boat will lose power.”

The rigor of dragon boating isn’t a deterrent for team members as they recover, Kelly said. Instead, being members of a team allows them to support each other.

“If you have to stop and rest a minute, everybody understands,” Kelly said. “One of the very best things about being a breast cancer survivor team is that you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.”