On a rainy evening in the summer of 2019 I was reminded, in a rather profound way, of what it means to be a part of a team. Paddling for the third year with the Wellness Warriors Boston – dragon boat team for all cancer survivors – I had been thoroughly enjoying my experience with this fierce and fun group of people. I have always been competitive, sometimes annoyingly so, being a bit nervously self conscious of it, often trying to mask it and tame it in order to not annoy people around me. But to me, in sports and games, bringing out your competitive side is safe, and when handled well is a wonderful form of self expression, perhaps an acceptance of your lurking inner wild animal.
It took cancer for me to join a sports team, and so it was easy for me to feel an instant connection to my teammates. It’s as if our common experiences allow us to create a force on the water that propels us forward. We of course falter and wobble when the beast gets tired, but we hold each other up and continue to move forward.
On this rainy summer evening I went to practice wondering if we would actually paddle in this soaker, not being sure if I liked it or not, although the kid in me celebrating for sure. I realized as soon as I got to the boathouse that this team of survivors had no plans of backing out. I remember looking at them in a bit of awe and admiration. YES!
We are paddling in the middle of the Charles River, the rain is pounding on us, we are soaked to the bone, and I am smiling at the ridiculousness of it all, when all of a sudden our paddles hit the bottom of the river. We are stuck! We are STRANDED! How is that even possible?! Note to self, in order to avoid overflowing and flooding nearby roads, apparently the powers that be drain the Charles in heavy rains, and so you may be able to wade across. Who knew! Although don’t take it from me.
I immediately feel a sense of panic, and picture us having to get out of the boat right there in the middle of the Charles, and either swim or wade to shore, hopefully the latter. I don’t know why I panicked, but I think that a part of me was worried that not all of my teammates could swim, and so was picturing some sort of a rescue mission. Still able to smile at the image, after all we are required to wear Personal Flotation Devices, but I am somewhat surprised that nobody on the boat seems to be panicking. Instead, I hear a calm, firm voice from the front row, giving orders to use our paddles to push the boat backwards and off the sand bar we had stranded on.
In some sort of bewildered thrill I do as I am told, and I am immediately relieved to know that there are paddlers on this team who are making up for my own shortcomings. Yes, I like to believe that I would for sure have used my swimming skills to rescue my dear teammates, but sometimes all that is needed is a bit of calm, a bit of experience, to pull a team in crisis (ok, small crisis) together.
We are all cancer survivors, and we have all fought cancer in our own way with the help of doctors, family, and friends. Yet I remember it being a somewhat lonely fight. It is perhaps impossible to fully explain to others what it is like to be faced with a life threatening illness. In the dragon boat I don’t have to explain anything. Nothing beats the feeling of being with your fellow warriors, thriving in an environment that lets you realize your limitations, accept your limitations, and then go beyond them, as part of a team. No competition required – until race day!
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