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Beating the odds

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Cancer survivors unite through boat racing

By Michelle Williams

Many of the members say that once you paddle, you’re instantly addicted. They are talking about the Indy Surviveoars — a non-profit dragon boat racing team that practices on Geist Reservoir and competes in up to four races each year from April through October. Started by breast cancer survivors, the team now includes other members called SupportOars.

Vice president Elaine Shea joined the team in 2009 after being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. A friend recommended it to her while she was completing radiation treatment, and she decided to try it even though she had never heard of dragon boat racing before.

“It brings you a sense of normalcy and accomplishment. The other thing that is really unique for women is finding any sort of activity or sport where you’re part of a team.” said Shea. “It’s not a kumbaya support group. The team works in different ways. If you think about what feels really good and energizing, it’s about accomplishing something. The women feel accomplished when they learn the boating skills and do well.”

Breast cancer dragon boat racing has been around for nearly 20 years. Canadian sports physician, Don McKenzie, MD, believed that repetitive motion would improve the quality of life for breast cancer patients. He launched Abreast in a Boat in 1996 to research and test his theory. Subsequent research has proven that the physical activity does indeed produce a positive impact, possibly even improving overall survival rates.

The team’s mission is to help provide breast cancer survivors with a strong message of hope, inspiration and encouragement. Shea said that the team’s goal for the international competitions is to place in the top half, and that goal has been achieved. Some members paddle even during active battles with cancer, but such activity is not possible for everyone. The team also spends time together socially so that everyone is included. Fundraising events during the year support the team financially and cover racing costs for members who are unable to afford them. Extra funds are poured into the team’s community outreach efforts.

Shea expressed a deep gratitude for the team’s sponsors, one of which is Geist Marina — where their boat and equipment are stored.

The boat is difficult to miss when the team is spotted practicing on Geist. The Indy Surviveoars boat is the first pink dragon boat produced by long-time boat manufacturer, Swift Dragon Boats of China. When full, the boat carries 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steer oarsperson.

Shea spoke about the reactions they see from people on the water as they practice. “It’s a lot of smiling and waving or tooting their boat. Occasionally if we are close enough, we’ll see someone coming out on their patio early on Saturday morning. It’s very supportive.”

The group receives support in other ways as well. “Originally, we didn’t even have enough folks to fill the boat on a consistent basis. Sometimes friends would come along to support and paddle with us.” said Shea. These friends and family members have become known as SupportOars, some of which even serve on the board of directors.

Secretary Shari Worrell is one such member, and joined with a friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was really amazing to watch her. The time that I thought she’d be really fearful and worried about her health, instead it was the first time in her life she felt like an athlete and part of a team.” said Worrell. Affected deeply by a family history of breast and other cancers, Worrell finds comfort and inspiration within the group. “I just think it’s a great floating support group and they inspire me every day to be the best that I can.”

About Elaine Shea

Favorite pastime: I do yoga twice a week and garden. I am active and enjoy being with family and grandkids

Favorite local restaurant: O’Charley’s or Cheesecake Factory

Age: Late 60’s – one of the oldest paddlers

Birthplace: Born in Astoria, Ore. Raised in northern Indiana. I came to Indy to finish Bachelor’s and Master’s in nursing.

Favorite vacation spot: We like to travel to be around water, whether it’s an ocean or a lake.

Family: Husband, Dan; daughter, Adrian; son, Brian; step sons Jim and Mike

Place of work: Former nursing director at Wishard, now Ezkenazi Health

Place of worship: St. John’s, downtown Indy

Favorite quotes: “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” John Lennon

Mottos to live by: Work for a cause, not for applause. Live life to express, not to impress. Don’t strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt.


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