Team Survivor Sea Dragon: Bouts with cancer fuel paddlers’ passion for victory

One by one, they pull up to the Youth Aquatic Center on Fiesta Island in the heart of Mission Bay Park in the dreary overcast of an early Sunday morning. But this crowd is anything but dreary.

These are the dynamic women of the Team Survivor Sea Dragons, convening on a stretch of sandy beach to once again unite against the challenges of a mutually defeated enemy: cancer.

Dragon boat paddling is a team sport that packs 20 paddlers and a steersman/coach into what looks like a very long kayak. The dragon boat race custom started in southern China, where the fifth lunar day of the fifth lunar month was selected as a totem ceremony. The dragon was the main symbol on the totem, because the Chinese believe that they are sons of the dragon.

The Team Survivor Sea Dragons was formed in 2008, and the athletes who fill the boat are female cancer survivors of various ages, backgrounds and physical strength.

Roberta Wells-Famula, the 61-year-old captain of the team, has been here since the beginning. She had a mastectomy and heard of the team through a newspaper article. “I was not into sports at all. Here was this crazy woman named Cheance teaching us, and I got hooked, really hooked. I never looked back,” she laughed.

What Wells-Famula loves most is the camaraderie of the team. She said everyone gets along and supports each other in so many ways. “There’s a deep affection and deep connection that you can’t get anywhere else. Then we get out on the water and work our butts off.”

The aforementioned Cheance is 59-year-old Cheance Adair, the team’s coach. She came up with the idea of forming such a team after seeing a similar one in Canada during a competition.

When asked about her cancer, she pointed to a small patch just left of her chin. “Melanoma,” she said with a sly grin. “That’s all I got.”

Still, the women embraced her as their coach from the beginning because she accepts nothing but their personal best.

“As a coach, they don’t want someone to commiserate with,” Cheance said. “I’m not going to coddle them. I’m the coach that’s going to push them on.”

And even though Cheance can’t claim to be a real member of the cancer-survivor club, she’s still at the head of the boat, urging them on. She has her own reasons for being there.

“They’re an inspiration to me. There is something they bring to the boat that I need. I don’t get to sit back and say ‘I can’t work out today.’ I’m here for them. But I’m also here for self-preservation. It’s selfish, I admit,” she confessed.

Surprisingly, Coach Cheance never speaks to the cancer. “They can tell me what limitations they have and I’ll accommodate them. But I don’t bring it up,” she said. “We’re there to see what they can do in the future.”

Team member Crystal Crawford is a three-time cancer survivor at age 60. She appreciates the practical side of being on a team of fellow survivors. “We’re all competitive and love the sport, but there is also that support network, the emotional component, figuring out options for treatment,” she said.

Crawford couldn’t paddle while going through treatment during her last bout with cancer. “But I still came out there to see the team.”

One of the newest members of the team is 64-year-old Maria Thome, who had breast cancer in 2004. When she first joined, she loved the instant support and shared experiences. “No matter what you’ve been through, somebody has a crazier story than you. But this isn’t about crazy stories. It’s about the camaraderie and the competition. It’s just very inspiring to me,” she said.

Joining the Sea Dragons: If you are a female cancer survivor interested in signing up, visit teamsurvivorsd.org

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