By Phyl Newbeck
Linda Retchin of Shelburne and Ann-Marie Plank of Charlotte are about to set forth on the trip of a lifetime. The two are part of a team of women over 50 years of age who will be racing dragon boats in the Club Crew World Championships in Hong Kong in early July. Dragonheart Vermont is sending two teams to the championship; a team of breast cancer survivors and a Grand Masters team of over 50 supporters.
Dragonheart Vermont was founded in 2004 by Linda Dyer of Bolton. What started with a borrowed boat and some novice paddlers has turned into a highly organized group of four teams, three of which are composed entirely of breast cancer survivors. Twenty paddlers, following the beat set by the boat’s drummer, paddle the 41-foot crafts. Dragonheart Vermont sponsors the annual Dragon Boat Festival on Lake Champlain to raise money for cancer survivorship programs.
The sport of dragon boating originated in China with the first dragon boat festival being held in Hong Kong in 1976. This is the eighth year they have held the Club Crew World Championships, which will include more than 200 teams from around the world whose paddling will be watched and cheered by upwards of 50,000 spectators. The racers will compete in three distances: 200, 500 and 2,000 meters. In order to prepare, the Vermont paddlers attended training camp in Melbourne, Florida where they had the opportunity to watch Olympic athletes (kayakers and canoeists) preparing for the games in London. The team spent a week in Florida training twice a day for ninety minutes at a time.
Plank has been to camp in Florida for several years now, as preparation for the racing season. She has been paddling with the Dragonheart Vermont Sisters since they first started in 2004, after her daughter, who worked at the Community Sailing Center, saw that they were in need of paddlers. Although it was originally intended as a team for breast cancer survivors, Plank was able to join because there weren’t enough women who fit the bill. “When you first start out, you’ll take anyone,” she joked. “I filled in and became a member. I absolutely loved it.”
In contrast, Retchin only began paddling last summer. After two decades as a 5K runner whose speed was not increasing with age, she decided to try something new. While volunteering at the Vermont City Marathon, she saw the Dragonheart table and decided to give the sport a shot. “By my second time in the boat, my endorphins were up,” she said. “The ‘newbies’ did a 2,000 meter race. You paddle for what seems like an eternity, but my core and my mind were engaged. I loved being in a boat and being on the water.”
Retchin was captivated by the view of the Adirondacks in one direction and Burlington in the other, as well as the camaraderie of the other women in the boat. “I was hooked,” she said. So hooked, that she has given up golf, which had been one of her other summer pastimes.
Now Retchin paddles regularly with the Green Mountain Girls; heading to monthly competitions in Canada, Boston, Hartford, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. No longer a novice, she assists in a practice festival which is held every year in July, helping more recent converts to the sport. Retchin has never been to Hong Kong and is definitely looking forward to the trip, having caught the travel bug years ago when she moved to Bern, Switzerland to work as a dental hygienist. Plank has never travelled to Hong Kong either. Practices and races are expected to take up five or six days, but she’ll be staying for 13 nights to take in some scenery. The group has been advised to arrive two days early to get over their jet lag and acclimatize to the heat and humidity.
“It’s pretty amazing to see 20 paddlers in sync,” Retchin said. “When the lake isn’t choppy and sun is going down, it’s very moving.” Retchin still marvels at the fact that the sport was taking place just miles of north of her and she hadn’t been aware of it. “This is a perfect segue way for my life and my spiritual attraction to the water,” she said. “Plus, as a mahjong player, I’ve got the Eastern connection.”
Plank is also thrilled to continue paddling with Dragonheart. “It’s a great way to enjoy the lake, meet new friends and get exercise,” she said, “and to support a non-profit group.” Plank has watched Dragonheart grow from a handful of people to over 150 paddlers. “It’s nice to see that we’re getting more breast cancer survivors,” she said. “We’re also able to help them with new programming like Survivorship NOW, which provides extensive programming for those who have finished their treatment.”
“You reach a certain point in your life where you don’t need much more,” said Retchin. “You have your friends, your commitments, etc. My life was full enough and I was grateful for what I had. Then I met 100 paddlers and now I’ve made room for them in my life. They are amazing people and they have a powerful mission statement. It’s been quite a journey.”