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Nathan Benderson Park's Breast Cancer Survivors dragon boat team paddles in New Zealand

The team will compete in the 2023 edition of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission (IBCPC) Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Lake Karapiro.

SARASOTA, Fla. — A shared experience of a health challenge has brought together a special group of local women that will soon compete together in an international sporting event.

The paddling team, Survivors In Sync — and all breast cancer survivors — is based at Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park. The team is in New Zealand to compete in the 2023 edition of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission (IBCPC) Participatory Dragon Boat Festival. The event takes place in Lake Karapiro, Cambridge, New Zealand from April 10-16, 2023.

The 24-women team has two boats competing in 500-meter and 200-meter races. The team has won several events and came in fourth at the most recent IBCPC Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in 2018 in Italy.

All the women range in age and experience when it comes to paddling.

"The first day on the water, it wasn't too bad, but my first race was here," MaryAnn Sturm, a paddler, said. "It was the hottest day I think of the whole year."

Sturm is a retired teacher and one of the team's newest members. Breast cancer is all too familiar to her and the women in her family. She lost her mom to breast cancer at a young age and her sister, too, went through the ordeal. She, herself, has been a survivor for more than a decade.

"It was very tough," Sturm said. "My first chemo treatment, my daughter, who just had a baby and she drove from Jacksonville, she and her husband with the new baby and I held a newborn baby all during my first chemo treatment."

"The women here know when it's like they've been through it," she added. "They've lost their hair or you know they've gone through reconstruction and all those things, so that support system has been wonderful."

"Twenty paddlers in a boat," Angela Long, captain, Survivors In Sync Team, said. "There's a drummer that sits upfront that keeps the cadence of the boat so that we can all paddle in sync, and in the back of the boat is a steer person who stands and that's typically me."

Long said for many of the women the activity of Dragon Boat paddling is more than just a sport. Many use it as a form of post-cancer rehabilitation.  

"They see what we're doing and it really gives them hope that that could be them," Long said. "There's life after cancer."

"For many of us on the team, life is even better than it was prior to our cancer diagnosis and I think that's the biggest, strongest, loudest message," she added.

"You can be a strong woman you can do those things and I want my grandchildren to say well look at what my grandma can do and set that example for other young women," Sturm said.

This is the first time Sturm will travel on an overseas trip with her teammates to compete.

"I'm just expecting to see all those strong women," she said. "It gives me goosebumps when I think that every woman participating in these races are Breast Cancer Survivors."

The Dragon Boat Festival is held every four years. To learn more about the team and other local dragon boat paddling teams visit the Nathan Benderson Park website for information.

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