Women of strength

The dragon boat ladies

Meagan Brown
October 22, 2009

Amici ci aspetta una barca... (Friends, a boat is waiting for us...)


I recognized Libby Cataldi immed-iately though we had never met before. I was waiting for her on the steps of the church of Santa Maria Novella when I saw her walking across the piazza, vibrant in look and energy. Her outfit was carefully chosen: pink from head to toe.


We took the bus together across the Arno and east to the Canottieri boathouse, where we met the other members of the women's dragon boat team.


Like Libby, the other women were enthusiastic, and they began their stretches as a team. Although the only all-women team there, they are fully at home in the Canottieri house. All different ages, most dressed in pink, they are uniformly confident and exuberant, and they are all, I discovered, cancer survivors.


With their muscles stretched and warmed up, they made their way down to the Dragon Lady, their boat, their source of strength. The boat is long and lean, ready to glide through the water with her team aboard. As the women donned their pink life jackets, the captain produced the drum that would guide their pace. As she began to pound out a rhythm, the chatter ceased and the women assumed the ready position. From there they moved as one, spirit and hope carrying them swiftly down the Arno, a symbol of life and energy.


The Dragon Lady's crew is part of an international organization founded in 1996, in Canada, for women who have or have had breast cancer. The idea came from a doctor who, unlike his colleagues, who were telling women with breast cancer not use their upper-body muscles, encouraged them to strengthen their muscles-and grow stronger.


Why a dragon boat? In China, where dragon boats originate, the dragon is thought to ward of evil spirits. Indeed, when the boat glides through the water it has a certain bob to it that looks like a dragon's head moving.

Florence's team was started on February 14, Valentine's Day, 2006 by 14 women who met on the banks of the Arno. Only a few of the original 14 women are on the team today.As Deanna, one of the few remaining original members explained, ‘some leave, some die, some cannot come anymore.' Since the Florence group was founded it has grown and while usually this is good news for an organization, in this case it is not. ‘The group started with 14 of us, older women,' said Deanna. 'But now we are larger and, sadly, a younger team.'


Competitions have taken the Florence team as far as Australia and often to Venice and Rome. During a recent race in Venice, although Florence's team did not win, it was honored as ‘a team that rows for hope.' The women then put pink roses in the water at the Grand Canal, honoring the members who had passed away.


During their practice sessions, two to three times each week, the women speak freely with each other. Though inspiring and uplifting as they are reminded of how far each one has come, they are acutely aware of the tough journey each is still on, and the friends and teammates they have lost along the way.


For example, one team member, Anna, said that she likes to think of their work positively: ‘It is important to have fun and stay strong and healthy. It is important for me to row with these women who have gone through the same as me. Sometimes we get here and it's sad; sometimes we get here and it's not. But we come anyway.'


When team member Margherita Gallini recently passed away, the women raised money for the boat that they now race, it is dedicated to her, Il sorriso di Margherita, a reminder of a friend they lost.


‘It is difficult,' said Libby, ‘but we live with it and we help each other through it.'


For many, being a part of this team is important not only for the hope that it gives but the opportunity to work to raise awareness and encourage women to check themselves for lumps, get checked, and get mammograms. For the women on the team, raising the awareness about preventing breast cancer is one of the most important goals.


‘We are here to row, to be a part of something and stay healthy,' said Libby. ‘There are no guarantees, but there is always hope. We don't know what will happen in the future, but no one can take our hope.'


Strong and deeply motivated to overcome their disease, these women embrace life. They continue to work, raise children, and write books and travel. They know how to laugh and how to work as a team. Though cancer slowed them for a time in their lives, it has not stopped them or extinguished their desire to live, and explore and enjoy our world. They are women come prima.



To learn more about the Dragon Boat Ladies, contact Alessandro Piccardi at the Canottieri comunali (on Lungarno Ferrucci 4, corner of Ponte da Verrazzano) at 055/6812151; Servizio Donna come prima della LILT (Vanda Poggi c/o CERION, Villa Le Rose, via Cosimo il Vecchio 2) at 055/32697826; e-mail Milena Vacirca: [email protected] -  www.florencedragonlady.it




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