Seven Canby residents paddle for the breast cancer exclusive Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team

Photo Credit: COREY BUCHANAN - The Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team racing down the Willamette River during a Saturday morning practice.

Out on the waters of the Willamette River, feet snuggled between a socket and hands clenched to paddle handles, breast cancer survivors prepare to put their able arms and pink blades to work.

“Paddle’s ready,” the caller, who demonstratively directs her teammates like a head coach, yells out.

Immediately, a group of 20 paddles rise. When the caller yells paddle, said paddles are slammed into the water so ferociously that the boat can feel like a tightrope, but so fluid that the paddles dive beneath the water’s surface in unison. After a couple minutes, the caller yells, “let it ride” and the paddlers rest.

The cardio and arm workout seems intense, but after facing chemotherapy, it’s well within Jan Walker’s fortitudinous capacity.

“You feel like you can do pretty much anything now,” she said.

The Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team is made up of 80 women of all ages who survived breast cancer or currently going through treatment. They compete in races ranging from 500-2,000 meters in some competitions against exclusively breast cancer teams and others against other female teams. Along with paddlers and the caller, a tiller stands in the back of the boat, guiding it toward the desired direction.

The team’s website states: “The Pink Phoenix™ team's mission is to enhance breast cancer awareness and to demonstrate for survivors that there is quality life after breast cancer.”

Paddle boating is a team sport, but requires all individual members to reach zenith performance to achieve success.

“Every individual has to do their best. You have to focus on improving yourself,” Pink Phoenix public relations representative Meg Kilmer said.

Seven of the members are from the Canby area including Deborah Syrdal, Dyanne McDonnell, Geraldine Frazier and Walker.

The group is a microcosm of the team: diverse but united.

“This group is good support for meeting people that you normally wouldn’t come in contact with and is a group with a lot of different backgrounds and stories. They become a network of friends you didn’t know before,” Walker said.

More women are inflicted with breast cancer than any other form of cancer and cancer is the most common cause of death for women. However, for some that survive, it can facilitate positive change.

Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Frazier liked to run marathons. However, in facing her mortality, she began to reassess their value.

“After I got breast cancer I realized that (running marathons) wasn’t important. I thought how selfish it was to train and neglect my family. In some ways, now I feel like I was blessed to have breast cancer. It changed my whole outlook on family and friends," she said.

For Syrdal, her diagnosis had a quite opposite effect. Syrdal said her whole life she avoided exercise like it was a disease.

“I was a complete coach potato,” she said. “I studiously avoided gym class my whole life.”

Three weeks into radiation therapy, Syrdal went with her daughter to Salem. She just so happened to spot dragon boats zipping through the river and wanted to watch. In particular, she spotted the Pink Phoenix boat and after the race, she visited their tent.

By the time she left Salem, she was a member of the team and less than a week later, she joined the ladies in the water.

As a non-athlete, her first dip into the world of dragon boat racing was a rocky one.

“The first time, I thought I was going to die. I did it all wrong. I was just using my arms. I couldn’t get my paddle out of the water,” Syrdal said.

But while Syrdal contemplated why she ever decided to join the team, an elder stateswoman of the group provided motivation.

ElvaRene Plimpton was 94-years-old, more than 30-years Syrdal’s senior and was paddling away without complaints.

“I thought, ‘if Evelyn can do it, I can do it,’” she said.

The group of Canby residents agreed Plimpton was an inspiration. Unfortunately, she passed away this year. And dealing with teammate death is an indelible aspect of Pink Phoenix.

In fact, a member of the team has died every month this year.

They agreed that the most exhausting aspect of being on the team doesn’t occur while on the boat, but rather, when other paddlers pass away.

“The hardest part for us all is when we lose a sister,” Frazier said.

Many paddlers leave the team for that very reason.

“Some people left the team because they couldn’t handle it. You’ve been friends with this person and they are on the team and they lost their battle with breast cancer. It's hard," Walker said.

However, Walker would rather meet a beautiful person and morn their death than not meet them at all.

“My thinking is you get an opportunity to know someone. I think there is some value in that,” she said.

Along with attending their funeral in droves, to honor the deceased every year, the team holds a “Celebration of Life” ceremony where they invite family members of the deceased to witness a ceremony and hop in the boat with them to feel the emotions the waves educe.

"Last year a mother of a paddler sat beside me on the boat and she just sobbed the whole time. It was wonderful for her because there are all of these people here who remember her daughter,” McDonnell said.

Though thoughts of death are unavoidable, the team mostly keeps things light, poking fun at the time they were introduced while the song “Another one bites the dust,” blared or when they were accidentally introduced as “Team Expire.” They also make jokes about boob jobs and have a song that they say makes teenagers uncomfortable.

“We all have great senses of humor. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here,” Frazier said.

And being on the team is more triumphant than it is sad. Many members of the team have over 15 medals at various races across the world. The team has traveled to Australia for one race, but they mostly race at various location across the West Coast and Canada including Victoria, B.C., Bellevue, and San Francisco.

Last weekend, the team went to Victoria for a race. Before they left, Syrdal put the trip into perspective.

“It’s unbelievable to be doing this. A 61-year-old grandmother who avoided exercise her whole life is now going to Canada for a competitive race.”

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